nostalgia isn’t going to be what it was, or something like that

When I was a child there was music which was, whether you liked it or not, inescapable. I have never – and this is not a boast – deliberately or actively listened to a song by Michael Jackson, Madonna, Phil Collins, Duran Duran, Roxette, Take That, Bon Jovi, the Spice Girls… the list isn’t endless, but it is quite long. And yet I know some, or a lot, of songs by all of those artists. And those are just some of the household names. Likewise I have never deliberately listened to “A Horse With No Name” by America, “One Night in Bangkok” by Murray Head or “Would I Lie to You” by Charles & Eddie; and yet, there they are, readily accessible should I wish (I shouldn’t) to hum, whistle or sing them, or just have them play in my head, which I seemingly have little control over.

Black Lace: the unacceptable face(s) of 80s pop

And yet, since the dawn of the 21st century, major stars come and go, like Justin Bieber, or just stay, like Ed Sheeran, Lana Del Rey or Taylor Swift, without ever really entering my consciousness or troubling my ears. I have consulted with samples of “the youth” to see if it’s just me, but no: like me, there are major stars that they have mental images of, but unless they have actively been fans, they couldn’t necessarily tell you the titles of any of their songs and have little to no idea of what they actually sound like. Logical, because they were no more interested in them than I was in Dire Straits or Black Lace; but alas, I know the hits of Dire Straits and Black Lace. And the idea of ‘the Top 40 singles chart’ really has little place in their idea of popular music. Again, ignorance is nothing to be proud of and I literally don’t know what I’m missing. At least my parents could dismiss Madonna or Boy George on the basis that they didn’t like their music. It’s an especially odd situation to find myself in as my main occupation is actually writing about music; but of course, nothing except my own attitude is stopping me from finding out about these artists.

The fact is that no musician is inescapable now. Music is everywhere, and far more accessibly so than it was in the 80s or 90s – and not just new music. If I want to hear Joy Division playing live when they were still called Warsaw or track down the records the Wu-Tang Clan sampled or hear the different version of the Smiths’ first album produced by Troy Tate, it takes as long about as long to find them as it does to type those words into your phone. Back then, if you had a Walkman you could play tapes, but you had to have the tape (or CD – I know CDs are having a minor renaissance, but is there any more misbegotten, less lamented creature than the CD Walkman?) Or you could – from the 1950s onwards – carry a radio with you and listen to whatever happened to be playing at the time. I imagine fewer people listen to the radio now than they did even 30 years ago, but paradoxically, though there are probably many more – and many more specialised –  radio stations now than ever, their specialisation actually feeds the escapability of pop music. Because if I want to hear r’n’b or metal or rap or techno without hearing anything else, or to hear 60s or 70s or 80s or 90s pop without having to put up with their modern-day equivalents, then that’s what I and anyone else will do. I have never wanted to hear “Concrete and Clay” by Unit 4+2 or “Agadoo” or “Come On Eileen” or “Your Woman” by White Town or (god knows) “Crocodile Shoes” by Jimmy Nail; but there was a time when hearing things I wanted to hear but didn’t own, meant running the risk of being subjected to these, and many other unwanted songs. As I write these words, “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes, a song that until recently I didn’t know I knew is playing in my head.

And so, the music library in my head is bigger and more diverse than I ever intended it to be. In a situation where there were only three or four TV channels and a handful of popular radio stations, music was a kind of lingua franca for people, especially for young people. Watching Top of the Pops on a Thursday evening, or later The Word on Friday was so standard among my age group that you could assume that most people you knew had seen what you saw; that’s a powerful, not necessarily bonding experience, but a bond of sorts, that I don’t see an equivalent for now, simply because even if everyone you know watches Netflix, there’s no reason for them to have watched the same thing at the same time as you did. It’s not worse, in some ways it’s obviously better; but it is different. Of course, personal taste back then was still personal taste, and anything not in the mainstream was obscure in a way that no music, however weird or niche, is now obscure, but that was another identity-building thing, whether one liked it or not.

Growing up in a time when this isn’t the case and the only music kids are subjected to is the taste of their parents (admittedly, a minefield) or fragments of songs on TV ads, if they watch normal TV or on TikTok, if they happen to use Tiktok, is a vastly different thing. Taylor Swift is as inescapable a presence now, much as Madonna was in the 80s, but her music is almost entirely avoidable and it seems probable that few teenagers who are entirely uninterested in her now will find her hits popping unbidden into their heads in middle age. But conversely, the kids of today are more likely to come across “Owner of a Lonely Heart” on YouTube than I would have been to hear one of the big pop hits of 1943 in the 80s.

Far Dunaway as Bonnie Parker; a little bit 1930s, a lot 1960s

What this means for the future I don’t know; but surely its implications for pop-culture nostalgia – which has grown from its humble origins in the 60s to an all-encompassing industry, are huge. In the 60s, there was a brief fashion for all things 1920s and 30s which prefigures the waves of nostalgia that have happened ever since. But for a variety of reasons, some technical, some generational and some commercial, pop culture nostalgia is far more elaborate than ever before. We live in a time when constructs like “The 80s” and “The 90s” are well-defined, marketable eras that mean something to people who weren’t born then, in quite a different way from the 1960s version of the 1920s. Even back then, the entertainment industry could conjure bygone times with an easy shorthand; the 1960s version of the 1920s and 30s meant flappers and cloche hats and Prohibition and the Charleston and was evoked on records like The Beatles’ Honey Pie and seen onstage in The Boy Friend or in the cinema in Bonnie & Clyde. But the actual music of the 20s and 30s was mostly not relatable to youngsters in the way that the actual entertainment of the 80s and 90s still is. Even if a teenager in the 60s did want to watch actual silent movies or listen to actual 20s jazz or dance bands they would have to find some way of accessing them. In the pre-home video era that meant relying on silent movie revivals in cinemas, or finding old records and having the right equipment to play them on, since old music was then only slowly being reissued in modern formats. The modern teen who loves “the 80s” or “the 90s” is spoiled by comparison, not least because its major movie franchises like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters and Jurassic Park are still around and its major musical stars still tour or at least have videos and back catalogues that can be accessed online, often for free.

Supergrass in 1996: a little bit 60s, a lot 70s, entirely 90s

Fashion has always been cyclical, but this feels quite new (which doesn’t mean it is though). Currently, culture feels not like a wasteland but like Eliot’s actual Waste Land, a dissonant kind of poetic collage full of meaning and detritus and feeling and substance and ephemera but at first glance strangely shapeless. For example, in one of our current pop culture timestreams there seems to be a kind of 90s revival going on, with not only architects of Britpop like the Gallagher brothers and Blur still active, but even minor bands like Shed Seven not only touring the nostalgia circuit but actually getting in the charts. Britpop was notoriously derivative of the past, especially the 60s and 70s. And so, some teenagers and young adults (none of these things being as pervasive as they once were) are now growing up in a time when part of ‘the culture’ is a version of the culture of the 90s, which had reacted to the culture of the 80s by absorbing elements of the culture of the 60s and 70s. And while the artists of 20 or 30 years ago refuse to go away even modern artists from alternative rock to mainstream pop stars make music infused with the sound of 80s synths and 90s rock and so on and on. Nothing wrong with that of course, but what do you call post-post-modernism? And what will the 2020s revival look like when it rears its head in the 2050s, assuming there is a 2050s? Something half interesting, half familiar no doubt.

passive-digressive

There are two kinds of people* – those who like forewords, introductions, prefaces, author’s notes, footnotes, appendices, bibliographies, notes on the text, maps etc, and those who don’t. But we’ll get back to that shortly.

* there are more than two kinds of people. Possibly infinite kinds of people. Or maybe there’s only one kind; I’m never sure

A few times recently, I’ve come across the idea (which I think is mainly an American academic one, but I might be completely mistaken about that) that parentheses should only be used when you really have to (but when do you really have to?) because anything that is surplus to the requirements of the main thrust of one’s text is surplus to requirements full stop, and should be left out. But that’s wrong. The criticism can be and is extended to anything that interrupts the flow* of the writing. But that is also wrong. Unless you happen to be writing a manual or a set of directions or instructions, writing isn’t (or needn’t be) a purely utilitarian pursuit and the joy of reading (or of writing) isn’t in how quickly or efficiently (whatever that means in this context) you can do it. Aside from technical writing, the obvious example where economy just may be valuable is poetry – which however is different and should probably have been included in a footnote, because footnotes are useful for interrupting text without separating the point you’re making (in a minute) from the point you’re commenting on or adding to (a few sentences ago), without other, different stuff getting in the way.

*like this¹                                                                                                                                                                ¹but bear in mind that people don’t write footnotes by accident – the interruption is deliberate²                        ²and sometimes funny

Poly-Olbion – that’s how you write a title page to pull in the readers

I would argue (though the evidence of a lot of poetry itself perhaps argues against me – especially the Spenser’s Faerie Queen, Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion kind of poetry that I’m quite fond of) that a poem should be** the most economical or at least the most effective way of saying what you have to say – but who’s to say that economical and effective are the same thing anyway?)

** poets, ignore this; there is no should be

 

 

 

Clearly (yep), the above is a needlessly convoluted way of writing, and can be soul-achingly annoying to read; but – not that this is an effective defence – I do it on purpose. As anyone who’s read much here before will know, George Orwell is one of my all-time favourite writers, and people love to quote his six rules for writing, but while I would certainly follow them if writing a news story or article where brevity is crucial, otherwise I think it’s more sensible to pick and choose. So;

Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. Absolutely; although sometimes you would use them because they are familiar, if making a specific point, or being amusing. Most people, myself included, just do it by accident; because where does the dividing line fall? In this paragraph I have used “by accident” and “dividing line” which seem close to being commonly used figures of speech (but then so does “figure of speech”). But would “accidentally” or something like “do it without thinking” be better than “by accident?” Maybe.

Never use a long word where a short one will do. The key point here is will do. In any instance where a writer uses (for example) the word “miniscule” then “small” or “tiny” would probably “do”. But depending on what it is they are writing about, miniscule or microscopic might “do” even better. Go with the best word, not necessarily the shortest.

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. Note that Orwell wrote ‘always’ here where he could just have said If it is possible to cut a word out, cut it out. Not everything is a haiku, George.

Never use the passive where you can use the active. Surely it depends what you’re writing? If you are trying, for instance, to pass the blame for an assault from a criminal on to their victim, you might want a headline that says “X stabbed after drug and alcohol binge” rather than “Celebrity kills X.” You kind of see Orwell’s point though.

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. Both agree and disagree; as a mostly monolingual person I agree, but some words and phrases (ironically, usually ones in French, a language I have never learned and feel uncomfortable trying to pronounce; raison d’etre or enfant terrible for example) just say things more quickly and easily (I can be utilitarian too) than having to really consider and take the time to say what you mean. They are a shorthand that people in general understand. Plus, in the age of smartphones, it really doesn’t do native English speakers any harm to have to look up the meanings of foreign words occasionally (I do this a lot). The other side of the coin (a phrase I’m used to seeing in print) is that with foreign phrases is it’s funny to say them in bad translations like “the Tour of France” (which I guess must be correct) or “piece of resistance” (which I am pretty sure isn’t) so as long as you are understood (assuming that you want to be understood) use them any way you like.

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. It’s hard to guess what George Orwell would have considered outright barbarous (and anyway, couldn’t he have cut “outright”?) but anyone reading books from even 30, 50 or a hundred years ago quickly sees that language evolves along with culture, so that rules – even useful ones – rarely have the permanence of commandments.

So much for Orwell’s rules; I was more heartened to find that something I’ve instinctively done – or not done – is supported by Orwell elsewhere. That is, that I prefer, mostly in the name of cringe-avoidance, not to use slang that post-dates my own youth. Even terms that have become part of normal mainstream usage (the most recent one is probably “woke”) tend to appear with inverted commas if I feel like I must use them, because if it’s not something I would be happy to say out loud (I say “woke” with inverted commas too) then I’d prefer not to write it. There is no very logical reason for this and words that I do comfortably use are no less subject to the whims of fashion, but still; the language you use is part of who you are, and I think Orwell makes a very good case here, (fuller version far below somewhere because even though I have reservations about parts of it it ends very well):

“Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it. This is an illusion, and one should recognise it as such, but one ought also to stick to one’s world-view, even at the price of seeming old-fashioned: for that world-view springs out of experiences that the younger generation has not had, and to abandon it is to kill one’s intellectual roots.”

Review of A Coat of Many Colours: Occasional Essays by Herbert Read. (1945) The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell Volume 4. Penguin 1968, p.72 

the fold-out map in The Silmarillion is a thing of beauty

Back to those two kinds* of people: I am the kind of person that likes and reads forewords, introductions, prefaces, author’s notes, footnotes, appendices, bibliographies, notes on the text, maps and all of those extras that make a book more interesting/informative/tedious.

 

*I know.

 

In one of my favourite films, Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (1990), the protagonist Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), says “I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists’ ideas as well as the critics’ thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it really happened, that it’s all just made up by the author.” Well, that is not me; but I do love a good bit of criticism and analysis as well as a good novel. One of my favourite ever pieces of writing of any kind, which I could, but choose not to recite parts of by heart, is the late Anne Barton’s introduction to the 1980 New Penguin Shakespeare edition of Hamlet*. I love Hamlet, but I’ve read Barton’s introduction many more times than I’ve read the play itself, to the point where phrases and passages have become part of my mind’s furniture. It’s a fascinating piece of writing, because Professor Barton had a fascinating range and depth of knowledge, as well as a passion for her subject; but also and most importantly because she was an excellent writer. If someone is a good enough writer**, you don’t even have to be especially interested in the subject to enjoy what they write. Beyond the introduction/footnote but related in a way are the review and essay. Another of my favourite books – mentioned elsewhere I’m sure, as it’s one of the reasons that I have been working as a music writer for the past decade and a half, is Charles Shaar Murray’s Shots from the Hip, a collection of articles and reviews. The relevant point here is that more than half of its articles – including some of my favourites – are about musicians whose work I’m quite keen never to hear under any circumstances, if humanly possible. Similarly, though I find it harder to read Martin Amis’s novels than I used to (just changing taste, not because I think they are less good), I love the collections of his articles, especially The War Against Cliché and Visiting Mrs Nabokov. I already go on about Orwell too much, but as I must have said somewhere, though I am a fan of his novels, it’s the journalism and criticism that he probably thought of as ephemeral that appeals to me the most.

*All of the New Penguin Shakespeare introductions that I’ve read have been good, but that is in a different league. John Dover Wilson’s What Happens in Hamlet (1935, though the edition I have mentions WW2 in the introduction, as I remember; I like the introduction) is sometimes easy to disagree with but it has a similar excitement-of-discovery tone as Anne Barton’s essay

** Good enough, schmood enough; what I really mean is if you like their writing enough. The world has always been full of good writers whose work leaves me cold

a scholarly approach to comics

All this may have started, as I now realise that lots of things seem to in my writing did, with Tolkien. From the first time I read his books myself, I loved that whatever part of Middle-Earth and its people you were interested in, there was always more to find out. Appendices, maps, whole books like The Silmarillion which extended the enjoyment and deepened the immersion in Tolkien’s imaginary world. And they were central to that world – for Tolkien, mapping Middle-Earth was less making stuff up than it was a detailed exploration of something he had already at least half imagined. Maybe because I always wanted to be a writer myself – and here I am, writing – whenever I’ve really connected with a book, I’ve always wanted to know more. I’ve always been curious about the writer, the background, the process. I’ve mentioned Tintin lots of times in the past too and my favourite Tintin books were, inevitably, the expanded editions which included Herge’s sketches and ideas, the pictures and objects and texts that inspired him. I first got one of those Tintin books when I was 9 or so, but as recently as the last few years I bought an in many ways similar expanded edition of one of my favourite books as an adult, JG Ballard’s Crash. It mirrors the Tintins pretty closely; explanatory essays, sketches, notes, ephemera, all kinds of related material. Now just imagine how amazing a graphic novel of Crash in the Belgian ligne claire style would be.*

*a bit like Frank Miller and Geof Darrow’s fantastic-looking but not all that memorable Hard Boiled (1990-92) I guess, only with fewer robots-with-guns shenanigans and more Elizabeth Taylor

a scholarly approach to cautionary 1970s semi-pornography/horror: the expanded Crash

A good introduction or foreword is (I think) important for a collection of poems or a historical text of whatever kind. Background and context and, to a lesser extent, analysis expand the understanding and enjoyment of those kinds of things. An introduction for a modern novel though is a slightly different thing and different also from explanatory notes, appendices and footnotes and it’s probably not by chance that they mainly appear in translations or reprints of books that already enjoyed some kind of zeitgeisty success. When I first read Anne Barton’s introduction to Hamlet, I already knew what Hamlet was about, more or less. And while I don’t think “spoilers” are too much of an issue with fiction (except for whodunnits, which I have so far not managed to enjoy), do you really want to be told what to think of a book before you read it? But a really good introduction will never tell you that. If in doubt, read them afterwards!

Some authors, and many readers, see all of these extraneous things as excess baggage, surplus to requirements, which obviously they really are, and that’s fair enough. If the main text of a novel, a play or whatever, can’t stand on its own then no amount of post-production scaffolding will make it satisfactory.* And presumably, many readers pass their entire lives without finding out or caring why the author wrote what they wrote, or what a book’s place in the pantheon of literature (or just “books”) is. Even as unassailably best-selling an author as Stephen King tends to be a little apologetic about the author’s notes that end so many of his books, despite the fact that nobody who doesn’t read them will ever know that he’s apologetic. Still; I for one would like to assure his publisher that should they ever decide to put together all of those notes, introductions and prefaces in book form, I’ll buy it. But would Stephen King be tempted to write an introduction for it?

 

* though of course it could still be interesting, like Kafka’s Amerika, Jane Austen’s Sanditon or Tolkien and Hergé (them again) with Unfinished Tales or Tintin and Alph-Art

 

That Orwell passage in full(er):

“Clearly the young and middle aged ought to try to appreciate one another. But one ought also to recognise that one’s aesthetic judgement is only fully valid between fairly well-defined dates. Not to admit this is to throw away the advantage that one derives from being born into one’s own particular time. Among people now alive there are two very sharp dividing lines. One is between those who can and can’t remember the period before 1914; the other is between those who were adults before 1933 and those who were not.* Other things being equal, who is likely to have a truer vision at the moment, a person of twenty or a person of fifty? One can’t say, though on some points posterity may decide. Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it. This is an illusion, and one should recognise it as such, but one ought also to stick to one’s world-view, even at the price of seeming old-fashioned: for that world-view springs out of experiences that the younger generation has not had, and to abandon it is to kill one’s intellectual roots.”

*nowadays, the people who can or can’t remember life before the internet and those who were adults before 9/11? Or the Trump presidency? Something like that seems right

 

 

the book even of my secret soul (about books, again)

I love books. I want books. Post-Christmas I’m in the enviable position of having – not money, but in a way even better, virtual money that can only be spent on books. What I don’t have though, is a lot of space for books. So, periodically pruning the library (too grand a word) or book collection (worse?) or “my books” (better) is a painful necessity. But what to prune, and why? So far, every single time I’ve put together a box of books and dispersed it to charity shops I’ve almost immediately ‘needed’ one of the books I purged. On a few occasions (see here) I’ve bought back books (not the same actual copy though; I’m not that bad, yet) that I got rid of. And I’ll probably do it again, but I’m trying not to.

Why is it painful to get rid of books? Pompously, because the books you own are a reflection of yourself; of skins shed and personalities outgrown and discarded, and in a way a direct line back to your (possibly alarming) former selves with their sometimes alien tastes and enthusiasms.* Less pompously, because in general, I want more books, not fewer. I can’t think of an occasion when I got rid of a book simply because I didn’t like or just didn’t want it, though I’m sure it’s happened. And so, for decades I still owned (and may still have somewhere) the little red Gideons Bible that was given out to pupils when starting high school (do they still do that?). Its bookplate (ex-libris? Both terms seem very archaic) hints strongly at the typical kind of 12 year old boy that it was given to: Name: William Pinfold Form: human. Similarly, I may still have the books given to me in the street by Hare Krishna followers, which seems not to happen now but was a frequent enough thing in the early 90s that I can still remember without checking** that they were credited to and/or consisted of teachings by “His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami.” They often had nice, pleasingly psychedelic cover paintings but were invariably disappointing to try to read because, even when they had amazing titles like Easy Journey to Other Planets, they were all about Krishna consciousness – who knew?. But these are books that would be impossible to replace (in a personal sense; easy enough to get hold of different copies of them). More complicatedly – and just annoyingly, with space at a premium, I have multiple copies of some favourite books and will probably buy even more copies of them, if I come across them with covers that I like but don’t have and if they are cheap.

*case in point; I had forgotten how much I liked Camille Paglia in the days before libertarianism was an essentially standard right-wing-asshole viewpoint and when her provocative/confrontational ideas didn’t yet include being disingenuously frivolous about child abuse

** I’m only human though; I spelled his name wrong until looking out a picture of the book, Possibly absorbing his teachings might have helped?

So yes, I have quite a lot of books; but although ‘book collectors’ exist, I don’t qualify as one. Collecting is deliberate and with presumably, a specific end point in view; a collection. Collecting things is fun up to a point, but ultimately a thankless and frustrating task without the required personality type. It (fleetingly) irritates me when an author I like has written four or five books and the publisher changes the cover design or size after the first few, so the mismatched chaos of a complete collection is not for me. Not to mention that there are writers – Michael Moorcock, in print since the 1950s and as far as I know still writing, is the obvious example for me – who have, over the course of decades, written a ridiculous number of books, which have appeared under countless imprints in myriad editions and countries and therefore offer an opportunity for an epic and soul-crushingly futile quest for the true completist. I am not that completist.

who wouldn’t want a beautiful Aubrey Beardsley ex-libris in all their books? But who would want to actually paste them into all their books?

On the other hand, following the old stately home-library tradition of having a personalised ex-libris/bookplate/sticker thing, with its individualistic iconography always seems like a nice idea – even if it’s essentially just a picturesque way of writing your name in a book, which I would never do. It’s nice see a decorative ex-libris in an old book, but although the thought of having one’s own books personalised in that way is nice, the reality of actually sticking them in the books – fun for maybe the first ten or twenty, but after that too tedious to consider, is not so appealing. So, not a collector; but even not a true bibliophile either, at least in the sense that sometimes is written about. I do love books, but not all or any books, I don’t contemplate, like a wine taster, the smell of old books. There are of course books with distinctive odours, some pleasant (to me) like the dry and somehow slightly spicy smell (probably best to not think too much about) of old calf-bound volumes from the 18th century and earlier, others less so, like the peculiarly vomit-like bouquet of new children’s books. And though browsing through shelves and rooms of books can be and usually is an entirely pleasant pastime, after the excitement has faded there can be something a little depressing about looking through piles of chilly, mildewy, corrugated and fat-with-damp paperbacks in the bigger, more drafty and warehouse-like charity shops or auction rooms.

the uninspiring cover that inspired me to read beyond my taste, strangely

Still; books are artifacts in themselves and not just valuable for their contents. Though judging books by their covers is frowned on, that’s kind of what the covers are for. I’ve written about this stuff in several places before so won’t go on about it here, but there’s never been a time that I’ve read as hungrily or as indiscriminately as when I was a child, and until I found authors that were trustworthy – I will try to get onto the second part of that Robert Westall feature some time this year – covers were the thing that drew me in. I loved fantasy, history and sci-fi, so covers were what made books leap off the shelves of the local library or school library. And there were somehow never enough books to read, so that when, aged 12 – 14 or so, our English teacher required pupils to take books out of the school library every week, it was a perfect opportunity to branch out. After a fairly short time the kind of books I automatically wanted to read had been exhausted and it was necessary to try something else. It’s a strange thing, reading not-for-you books, kind of like trying on other people’s clothes, but I gave it a go, as I have a few times since then*. The book that stands out in my memory – or at least its cover does – is Desmond Bagley’s Bahama Crisis (1980). Being a newcomer to men’s thrillers (still an alien world mostly) I think I was expecting, without much excitement, James Bond (never a fan)-style action, but as I very hazily remember the book was mostly a soapy kind of story about the difficulties of running a hotel in the Bahamas.(??) I didn’t mind it, but although records tell me** that I got more Desmond Bagleys out of the library – I had to get something – none of them, or their titles or even their covers stick in my mind at all.

*reading not-for-me books, not trying on other peoples’ clothes                                                                             ** there’s a list in an old school jotter which I never threw away

It’s hard to imagine, as the world has become ever-more commercially driven, but it feels like publishers nowadays underestimate the seductive power of a good cover design (though what constitutes a good one is obviously subjective). There are several authors I liked as a young adult – Milan Kundera, Ian McEwan and Truman Capote spring to mind, but so (who would have thought it?) does Jean-Paul Sartre – who I might well never have read at all if I didn’t find the covers of their books so alluring. In retrospect the late 80s/early 90s seems like a golden age of book design to me, and don’t think it’s entirely because of the age I was when I first saw them. I was still only in my early 20s a few years later when book jackets became dominated by neon, acid colours and deliberately jarring designs and those left me cold at the time and look dated now. The covers I associate with that ‘golden age’ are entirely typical of the look that much literary fiction was going for at the time.

Milan Kundera’s books are actually about 50% better when read with these covers

Have there ever been cooler looking books than the 80s Faber & Faber or “King Penguin” (whatever happened to King Penguins?) Milan Kunderas? Or Russell Mills‘ genius covers for Picador’s Ian McEwans? Is it just a coincidence that they have a lot in common Dave McKean’s graphic novel designs of the time like Violent Cases and Arkham Asylum or Bill Sienkiewicz’s Stray Toasters? And though Penguin Modern Classics still look good now have they ever looked better than the pale green spines and black and white photo covers of that period?

assorted Ian McEwans, graphic novels & Penguin Modern Classics
bilious mid-90s book design
Boris Vallejo good; John Norman bad

Of course covers can mislead too; much as Peruvian painter Boris Vallejo is some kind of genius, one quickly learned that his covers were no guarantee of quality. Everything about John Norman’s Gor series – the sub-Tolkien/Robert E Howard setting, the Vallejo (and Vallejo imitators – of whom there were many) artwork, the swords and sorcery and gratuitous violence and sex – were guaranteed to appeal to the male, teenage fantasy fan; and yet the books were bizarrely dull to read. Actually, to be fair to Norman, the sex in the Gor books is hardly gratuitous, since it’s basically the whole point of the series; but the endless, tedious essays about masculine power and the bondage fantasies that pepper his books; without the thrill of the quest or even an alleviating sense of humour, is definitely an acquired taste. It was good to read, years later, Micheal Moorcock – along with Tolkien my favourite fantasy author – writing about how boring and tacky the Gor books were. I didn’t think it could just be me. Of course, Moorcock attacked Tolkien too, but though his essay Epic Pooh is not only a good read, but also hard to argue with at times (Moorcock’s main point is that Tolkien is conservative in his worldview and reproduces the class outlook and prejudices of his generation in his fiction) somehow Tolkien’s books resist the criticism effortlessly, if you’re a fan. I think it’s because for Tolkien, the background and history and world-building (as I believe they say nowadays) was the main point of interest, whereas for most subsequent heroic fantasy authors, all that is just the window dressing, so that Middle Earth feels real and believable in a way that most fantasy “realms” don’t. I don’t think there’s any point in Lord of the Rings where the reader has a question that they feel Tolkien couldn’t answer satisfactorily. That said, I imagine sex-related questions would have made him uncomfortable, whereas John Norman might not be able to tell you the detailed history and folklore of Counter-Earth as Tolkien could with Middle Earth, but he could definitely tell you which ropes, gag or whips are favoured by which tribes.

So; looking through my books there are many different versions of myself; because you read books that reflect your interests but often you also get those interests from books themselves. From the age of 8 or so, the Fighting Fantasy role-playing game book series cut across many of my interests. But even then, those books appealed to the child-me in the first place because I loved history and mythology and legends and Asterix the Gaul. But I’ve written more about children’s books and related subjects here and here and here and here and probably elsewhere too, so will try not to repeat myself. It’s easy to think of books that had a big influence on my interests as a child – the version of me that wanted to be an archaeologist wasn’t just thanks to Indiana Jones; before I ever saw Raiders of the Lost Ark I was already fascinated by the Aztecs and Incas because of Tintin and the Romans via Asterix – but also those things plus Ancient Egypt, Ancient China, the Normans, medieval history and knights etc via a big book called The History of the World that I got at a Primary School “Bring & Buy Sale” when I must have been 8 or so. That book had – still has in fact – painted illustrations that I remember vividly; ancient Sumerians, Julius Caesar being stabbed to death in the forum, ancient Greek ladies in strange clothes that exposed their breasts; mysteriously exciting even to an 8 year old, Genghis Khan on his horse, Viking raiders etc, etc. The me who loved space stuff was partly thanks to excitement about the space shuttle program (admittedly that cooled off after the Challenger disaster) and Star Wars, but also 2000 AD comic and the very badly-bound but beautiful reprints of old Dan Dare comics that Paper Tiger published in the early 80s)

But all this is getting away from the point, which is that book ownership is not just about reading. Books like the Bible or Easy Journey to Other Planets are not being kept to read, any more than E.W. Hildick’s Deadline for McGurk, a towering masterpiece as a kid but probably unreadable as an adult, or the different variants of The Fellowship of the Ring or JG Ballard’s Crash that take up valuable shelf space. Getting rid of them would feel wrong, at least unless there was a good cause or if more worthy books come along and the space must reluctantly be yielded to them. That’s the not-so-great thing about having book tokens to spend; the need to consider, plan and use them wisely. I probably won’t.

Book lover’s regrets – should have bought it but didn’t! Perhaps the greatest book cover of all time

2024 – welcome to the/a future(s)

 

Another year – and the actual name of the year itself gets ever stranger and more unlikely and exotically futuristic, if you grew up in the era when the film 2001: A Space Odyssey was still set in the future. And here’s the annual attempt to get something onto this site at the beginning of the year – just made it in the first week this time – and hopefully, to post more often. The goal is a minimum of once a month but I think goals are better than resolutions so that’s as far as I will go.

2023 was the usual mixed bag of things; I didn’t see any of the big movies of the year yet. I have watched half of Saltburn, which so far makes me think of the early books of Martin Amis, especially Dead Babies (1975) and Success (1978) – partly because I read them again after he died last year. They are both still good/nasty/funny, especially Success, but whereas I find that having no likeable characters in a book is one thing, and doesn’t stop the book from being entertaining, watching unlikeable characters in a film is different – more like spending time with actual unlikeable people, perhaps because – especially in a film like Saltburn – you can only guess at their motivations and inner life. So, the second half of Saltburn remains unwatched – but I liked it enough that I will watch it.

Grayson Perry – The Walthamstow Tapestry (detail)

I didn’t see many exhibitions last year but am very glad that I caught Grayson Perry’s Smash Hits in Edinburgh. I didn’t really plan to see it as assumed in advance I wouldn’t like it, but in fact I loved it and ended up having a new respect for GP that only partly evaporates whenever I see him on TV.

Kristin Hersh by Peter Mellekas

I can’t be bothered going in depth about my favourite music of the year because the year is over and I’ve written about most it elsewhere. Old teenage favourites came back strongly: Kristin Hersh’s superb run of albums continued with Clear Pond Road. I hadn’t thought a lot about Slowdive in years but I really liked Everything is Alive and was very pleased to see them get the kind of acclaim that mostly eluded them when I was buying their first album a million years ago. Teenage Fanclub’s Nothing Lasts Forever and Drop Nineteens’ Hard Light were good too, and The Girl is Crying in her Latte by Sparks was probably my favourite of theirs outside of their early 70s classics. There were some excellent black metal (or black metal-related) albums too; much as I don’t like to think of Immortal without Abbath, Demonaz did himself proud with War Against All. Niklas Kvarforth returned to form with the brilliant Shining and Skálmöld’s Ýdalir is as good as anything they’ve recorded. In less guitar-oriented genres, I loved Kid Koala’s Creatures of the Late Afternoon and the latest Czarface record but my favourite album of the year if I had to choose one was the loveably lo-fi and enigmatic compilation Gespensterland.

I read lots of good books in 2023 – I started keeping a list but forgot about it at some point – but the two that stand out in my memory as my favourites are both non-fiction. Lauren Elkin’s Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art  is completely engrossing and full of exciting ways of really looking at pictures. I wrote at length about Elena Kostyuchenko’s I Love Russia here. Kostyuchenko introduced me to a country that I only knew via history and stereotypes and her book is an exercise in what good journalism should be – informative, interesting, compassionate and readable. Both of these books cut across a wide range of subjects and examine unfamiliar things but also analyse the familiar from unfamiliar points of view; you should read them, if you haven’t already.

 

It’s no great surprise to me that my favourite books of the year would be – like much of my favourite art – by women. Though I think the individual voice is crucial in all of the arts, individuals don’t grow in a vacuum and because female (and, more widely, non-male) voices and viewpoints have always been overlooked, excluded, marginalised and/or patronised, women and those outside of the standard, traditional male authority figures more generally, tend to have more interesting and insightful perspectives than the ‘industry standard’ artist or commentator does. The first time that thought really struck me was when I was a student, reading about Berlin Dada and finding that Hannah Höch was obviously a much more interesting and articulate artist than (though I love his work too) her partner Raoul Hausmann, but that Hausmann had always occupied a position of authority and a reputation as an innovator, where she had little-to-none. And the more you look the more you see examples of the same thing. In fact, because women occupied – and in many ways still occupy – more culturally precarious positions than men, that position informs their work – thinking for example of artists like Leonora Carrington, Kay Sage or – a bigger name now – Frida Kahlo – giving it layers of meaning inaccessible to – because unexperienced by – their male peers.

The fact that women know more about themselves but also more about men than men do – because they have always had to – gives their work an emotional and intellectual charge often missing from those who belong comfortably within a tradition. This is a pretty well-worn idea – it’s why outsiders like Van Gogh or dropouts like Gauguin’s work speaks to us more clearly than the academic, tradition-bound art that they grew up with. Anybody on the margins, in whatever sense, of “mainstream society” has to have a working knowledge of that society, just to exist. Society has far less need to understand or even notice those people. – therefore their points of view are likely to not only be more individual, but more acute when it comes to observing the world in which they live. Class, race, gender; all of these things are always fascinatingly central to art and art history and the gradual recognition of that fact is making art history ever more exciting and vibrant. For now at least; we live in a time of conservative backlashes which attempt to restore order to those with a comfortable position within yesterday’s world – there will probably be an art historical backlash at some point, and the reputations of the mainstream stars of art in Van Gogh and Gauguin’s day, like William-Adolphe Bouguereau will find their reputations restored.

If that backlash comes, it will be from the academic equivalent of those figures who, in 2023 continued to dominate the cultural landscape. These are conservative (even if theoretically radical) people who pride themselves on their superior rational, unsentimental and “common sense” outlook, but whose views tend to have a surprising amount in common with some of the more wayward religious cults. Subscribing to shallowly Darwinist ideas, but only insofar as they reinforce one’s own prejudices and somehow never feeling the need to follow them to their logical conclusions is not new, but it’s very now. Underlying  ideas like the ‘survival of the fittest’, which then leads to the more malevolent idea of discouraging the “weak” in society by abolishing any kind of social structure that might support them is classic conservatism in an almost 19th century way, but somehow it’s not surprising to see these views gaining traction in the discourse of the apparently futuristic world of technology. In more that one way, these kinds of traditionalist, rigidly binary political and social philosophies work exactly like religious cults, with their apparently arbitrary cut off points for when it was that progress peaked/halted and civilisation turned bad. That point varies; but to believe things were once good but are now bad must always be problematic, because when, by any objective standards, was everything good, or were even most things good? For a certain class of British politician that point seems to have been World War Two, which kind of requires one to ignore actual World War Two. But the whole of history is infected by this kind of thinking – hence strange, disingenuous debates about how bad/how normal Empite, colonialism or slavery were; incidentially, you don’t even need to read the words of abolitionists or slaves themselves (though both would be good to read) to gain a perspective of whether or not slavery was  considered ‘normal’ or bad by the standards of the time. Just look at the lyrics to Britain’s most celebratory, triumphalist song of the 18th century, Rule Britannia. James Thomson didn’t write “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves; though there’s nothing inherently wrong with slavery.” They knew it was something shameful, something to be dreaded, even while celebrating it.

But anyways, the kind of avowedly forward-looking people we that are saddled with now, with their apparent concern for the future of the human species – especially the wellbeing of thus far non-existent future humans, as opposed to actual real living humans are, unlike the Amish, okay with progress, in the material sense of cars, computers, aircraft, spacecraft. But that only makes their core concern with traditional values and what is natural/unnatural even more nonsensical. If the defining thing about human beings is nature – men are like this, but not like that, women are like that, but not this; that nature dictates that compassion and medical science ate wasted on the weak and inferior, etc, then why draw the line at controlling gender and reproduction? Why get excited about the use of vaccines, or whether or not people “should” eat meat? If nature/”natural” really is the be all end all of human existence, why wear clothes, drive cars, cook food, use computers, build houses?  At what point does nature dictate what we do or can or should do? Isn’t everything humans do inherently natural because we have the capacity to do it and actually do do it?

Again, despite the supposed rationalism that fuels the superiority complexes of so many powerful people in whatever sector, their bullshit traditional ideas are dictated against – and always have been – by the lived experience of almost everyone in the world. If ‘real men’ are strong, rational and above all heterosexual, how come most of us will have met, throughout our lives, emotional, irrational men who can’t cope with pressure, who aren’t in control of themselves or their environment? How come homosexuality has existed since the beginning of recorded time and does not go away no matter how traditional or repressive society becomes or how much generation after generation insists that it is unnatural? If ‘real women’ are weak, gentle, sentimental, maternal, submissive and above all heterosexual, how come (etc, etc, etc, etc) Because of decadent western society? Well Western society is partly founded on the ideas of Ancient Greece, which though pretty misogynistic, famously did not have quite the same views on sexuality. And how come these people equally exist in every other society too? Could it be that traditional ideas of ‘human nature’ have nothing to do with actual nature but have always existed in western patriarchal societies simply to reinforce the status quo in the interests of those at the top of the hierarchical tree? From monarchies to oligarchies to modern democracies and communist states – all of which have their own ruling class, even when it is explicitly labelled otherwise – it’s been in the interest of those in charge to prevent anything which fundamentally changes the way things work.

For similar reasons, people in western society (perhaps elsewhere; I am no expert) who live unremarkable and mediocre lives within essentially complacent, and often apolitical circles are increasingly drawn to right rather than left wing extremism to gain prominence and (importantly) material success. Extremist views across the spectrum are entertainingly “edgy” and titillating to people who like to be entertained by controversy and/or shocked by outrageous behaviour, but right-wing views are far more acceptable within the media – and therefore are far more lucrative and rewarding – because they don’t threaten the financial basis that underpins the media and political structure.

So in short – only joking, this will be a long sentence (deep breath). If comedian or podcaster A) gains millions of followers who are excited about disruptive ideas that undermine the state by questioning the validity of the (sigh) mainstream media, by interrogating ideas of media ownership and the accumulation of wealth and power and so on, that represents a genuine threat to Rupert Murdoch, Viscount Rothermere, Meta and Elon Musk in a way that comedian or podcaster B), gaining millions of followers who lean towards ideas that disrupt society by attacking progressive, egalitarian or (sigh) “woke” culture does not. Regardless of the actual or avowed political beliefs of these media magnates, is comedian/podcaster A or comedian/podcaster B going to be the one they champion in order to tap into the zeitgeist (which media magnates have to do to survive)?

BUT ANYWAY, it would be nice to think that these things would be less central or at least more ignorable in 2024. It would also be nice if people in power could not enable the worst elements in society (where the two things are separable). It would be more than nice if the governments of the world would listen to people and end the butchering of helpless civilians. It’s important to remember that it is in the interests of governments – even relatively benign ones – that people in general feel powerless. But we’re not. If making resolutions works for you then make them, if not then don’t, if you have goals then aim for those and you may achieve something even if not everything you want to achieve. But if something is unacceptable to you, don’t accept it. You may have money, power, time or you may have little more than your own body and/or your own mind, but those are 100% yours and the most important things of all. Happy New Year and good luck!

jack told him about the thing – updating children’s books

 

There’s a strange moment near the beginning of the 1982 Puffin Books edition of Robert Westall’s Fathom Five (1979):

Dad never talked about Life and its Meanings; only fried bread and thrushes.
‘What’s got you up so early?’
Jack told him about the thing in the water.
‘It’ll be a mandolin, floated off a sunken ship mevve…’

Robert Westall, Fathom Five, Puffin Books, 1982, p.35

Strange that is, only because the hero of the book isn’t called Jack, he’s called Chas. I remember first reading this copy of Fathom Five as a child, being briefly puzzled, then moving on. It was only some time – possibly years – later that I read the blurb on the first page, before the title page:

Fathom Five (1978)

Robert Westall wrote this book straight after his best-selling The Machine Gunners, and it features many of the same characters that appear in the earlier novel. However, when the book was first published the names were changed. In this Puffin edition the original names have been restored.

I have always uncharitably assumed that what actually happened was that Fathom Five didn’t sell as well as Westall had hoped and was then rebranded by him as a sequel to The Machine Gunners in order to boost its sales, but I may be wrong. But it’s apposite at the moment anyway, because a range of children’s books are being altered, apparently for various other reasons, but really for that same one.

It isn’t obvious from the (generally hysterical) media coverage, but re-writing or tampering with “much-loved” (and that bit is important) children’s books, ostensibly to remove any possible offensiveness, has nothing to do with being PC or (sigh, eyeroll, etc, etc) “woke.” l reluctantly use the word because currently it is the word being used to talk about this issue by every moron who’s paid to have a (they would have you believe) popular, intolerant opinion. Right-wing tabloids love “woke” because it’s a single, easy-to-spell, easy-to-say syllable that takes up less space in a headline than “Political Correctness.” I think there are also people who like to use it because saying “Political Correctness” feels dry and snooty and even the abbreviation “PC” has a certain technical, academic quality; but using “woke” allows them to feel cool and in touch with the times. It’s the same kind of frisson that high school teachers get (or did “in my day”) from using teenage slang or mild swearwords in front of the kids; and the cringe factor is about the same too. Hearing someone with a public-school accent decrying “wokeness” is so milk-curdlingly wrong that it’s masochistically almost worth hearing, just to enjoy the uniquely peculiar and relatively rare sensation of having one’s actual flesh creep.

But anyway, the editing of children’s books – high profile examples (and significantly, there are only high profile examples) being of course Roald Dahl’s Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and various works by Enid Blyton, has nothing to do with people’s supposedly delicate sensibilities, it’s to do with money. Parents aren’t lobbying publishers to have books edited; “woke” parents generally don’t really want their kids reading racist or offensive books at all. And every year, untold numbers of unfashionable books (like, for example Fathom Five itself, which is great, regardless of the characters’ names) quietly slip out of print without any fuss being made. What it is, is that the books of Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton have made, and continue to make, a lot of money. Publishers realise that some of what they wrote is now embarrassingly out of date and rather than just print a possibly-off-putting disclaimer at the front of the book, they prefer to prevent any chance of damaging sales by seamlessly – well, it should be seamless, in the case of Matilda especially, it seems to be pretty clumsy – editing the book itself. In an ideal-for-the-publishers-world no-one would even notice that it had been done, columnists wouldn’t pick up on it and the kids could go on requesting the books and the parents and schools could supply them and nobody would be upset. But this is precisely the type of trivial issue the (here we go again) “anti-woke” lobby loves. It has no major impact on society, no major impact on children and it has nothing to do with any of the big issues facing the modern world, or even just the UK. It also puts them in the position they love, of being the honourable victims of modern degraded values, defending their beloved past – plus, in this case there’s even – uniquely I think – an opportunity for them to take what can be seen as the moral high ground without people with opposing political views automatically disagreeing with them. Even I slightly agree with them. My basic feeling is that if books are to be altered and edited, it should be by, or at least with the approval of, the author. But it’s never quite that simple.

The reason I only slightly agree is because the pretended outrage is just as meaningless as the revising of the texts itself. It’s not a governmental, Stalinist act, the new editions of Matilda etc only add to the mountain of existing Matildas, they don’t actually replace it. If the racist parent wants fully-leaded, stereotype-laden, unreconstructed imperialist nostalgia, it’s childishly simple to get it, without even leaving the comfort of their home. Better still, if they have the time and their love of the past stretches to more analogue pursuits, they can try browsing second hand bookshops and charity shops. It’s possible, even in 2023, to track down a copy of the original 1967 pre-movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or the most virulently offensive Enid Blyton books, not to mention long out-of-print goodies of the Biggles Exterminates the Foreigners type without too much difficulty. And in many cases one could do it as cheaply/expensively as by going into Waterstones or WH Smith and buying the latest, watered-down versions.

the big-format illustrated 1967 Charlie I knew as a child

But anyway, books, once owned, have a way of hanging around; I remember being mystified by Mel Stuart’s 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory the second time I saw it, at some point in the early 80s. I had known the book well since I was very young and the first time I saw the film, at home, in black and white, I thought everybody looked and sounded wrong, especially Gene Wilder, but that was all. When I saw it again, a while later, in colour, I found to my bemusement that the Oompa-Loompas were orange.* This definitely seemed odd – but even so, it’s not exactly the kind of thing that burns away at you and so it was only this year, when the book caused its latest furore, that I discovered that, although my mother had read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to me in the late ‘70s and then I had read it myself in the early ‘80s, the edition I knew was the large-format 1967 UK hardback edition. This had Faith Jaques’s beautifully detailed illustrations – which is where all of my impressions of the characters came from – but more importantly, it had the original Oompa-Loompas. A pygmy tribe, “imported” from “the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle,” they were immediately controversial in the US, where the NAACP understandably took issue with them. Roald Dahl, who presumably wanted the book to sell as well in the US as it did elsewhere, agreed with them (he may have actually seen their point too, but given his character in general I don’t think it does him too much of a disservice to assume the money was the bigger issue) and changed the book. So, no problem there, even if Dahl’s solution – making the Oompa-Loompas a race of blonde, rosy-cheeked white little people, who still live some kind of life of indentured servitude in a chocolate factory – doesn’t seem super-un-problematic when you really think about it; but it was his decision and his book. The orange Oompa-Loompas were a more fantastical way around the problem, and one which enhanced the almost psychedelic edge of the film.

If the intention of publishers in 2023 is to make Roald Dahl nice, they are not only wasting their time, they are killing what it is that kids like about his books in the first place. If children must still read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – and I don’t see why they shouldn’t – they are reading a story so mean-spirited and spitefully funny – and so outdated in so many ways – that it doesn’t really bear fixing. Though it was written in the 60s, Charlie’s poverty-stricken childhood with his extended family feels like something from the pre-war era when Dahl was a non-poverty stricken child, as does the book’s Billy Bunter-esque excitement about and fascination with chocolate. Are kids even all that rabidly excited about chocolate these days? And is a man luring kids into a chocolate factory to judge them for their sins something that can or should be made nice? I don’t think that’s an entirely frivolous point; as a child I remember Willy Wonka had the same ambiguous quality as another great figure of children’s literature, Dr Seuss’s the Cat in the Hat; which is where Mel Stuart went wrong, title-wise at least. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is all well and good, but it’s Charlie – a poor, harmless, nice kid who wants some chocolate – that’s the hero, not Wonka, a rich, mischievous adult man whose motives can only be guessed at. And in fact Gene Wilder captures that slightly dangerous quality perfectly. Almost all of Roald Dahl’s books are similarly nasty; but that’s why kids like them. Where necessary, a disclaimer of the ‘this book contains outdated prejudices and stereotypes which may cause offence’ (but hopefully less awkwardly worded) type is surely all that’s necessary. And anyway, where do you stop? Sanitising Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is patronising and weakens the power of Dahl’s writing, but to sanitise The Twits would be to render the whole book pointless.

*I had a similar epiphany when as a young adult I discovered that Bagpuss was pink and not the relatively normal striped ginger cat I had assumed; the joys of growing up black & white in the colour age!

JJ Fortune’s Race Against Time series – good 80s fun

Anyway; the thing that really makes the updating of books pointless is that kids who like to read, tend to read and understand. As a child in the 1980s, I had plenty of entertaining, modern-at-the-time books to read, like the Fighting Fantasy series, the novels of Leon Garfield and Robert Westall or even JJ Fortune’s slightly silly and very cinematic Race Against Time novels, but I also loved books that were much older and felt much older. I loved Capt. WE Johns’ legendary fighter pilot Biggles – especially the WW1-set Biggles books and The Boy Biggles, about the pilot’s childhood adventures in India. I loved Richmal Crompton’s William series (I wonder if William the Dictator (1938), where William and his gang decide to be Nazis is still in print?) I loved Willard Price’s Adventure series, about American brothers travelling the world to capture animals for zoos and safari parks. I even liked boarding school stories, especially Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings books. I remember very fondly a book called The One-Eyed Trapper by (will look it up) John Morgan Gray (1907-1978; got to love the internet) about (the title says it all). Years later at high school, some of the poems of Robert Frost immediately recalled to me the vivid, bracing outdoorsy atmosphere of The One-Eyed Trapper, though I don’t suppose Frost would have appreciated the comparison. I was never much of an Enid Blyton fan, but I did read a couple of her Famous Five and Secret Seven books. My favourite Blytons though were the series about her lesser-known, more awkwardly-named gang of nosy children, the Five Find-Outers (presumably it was because of that awkwardness that the names of their books were slightly anonymous things like The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage etc).

William the Dictator – good 1930s fun

These were books from the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s, that were set in those eras and written in outdated language and, as they say ‘reflected the values and attitudes of the time.’ Relatability is important in fiction up to a point, but it doesn’t need to be literal – children have imaginations. I didn’t want William or Jennings without their school caps, wearing trousers instead of shorts, I didn’t need Biggles to talk like a modern pilot (in fact the occasional glossaries of olden-days pilot talk made the books even more entertaining) or the one-eyed trapper to have two eyes and be kind to wildlife. My favourite member of the ‘Five Find-Outers’ was Fatty, which is probably not a name you would have given a lead character in a children’s book even in the 80s. The idea that changing “Fatty” to something more tactful, making him thinner or even just using his “real” first name, Frederick – would make the books more palatable or less damaging to the young readers of today is ridiculous and patronising. And possibly damaging in itself, to the books at least. Children’s books are mostly escapism, but they are also the most easily absorbed kind of education, and a story from the 1940s, set in a version of the 1940s where the kids look and speak more or less like the children of today and nobody is ever prejudiced against anyone else doesn’t tell children anything about the actual 1940s. I’m reminded of the recent movie adaptation of Stephen King’s IT. In the novel, one of its heroes, Mike Hanlon, who is black, is mercilessly bullied and abused by racist teens when he’s a kid. In the movie version he’s just as bullied, but without any racist abuse. I understand why it’s being done – more explicit racism onscreen is obviously not the solution to any of the world’s problems, especially in a story which only has one substantial black character – but at the same time, making fictional bullies and villains more egalitarian in their outlook doesn’t feel like the solution to anything. But even more to the point, there’s only so much altering you can do to a piece of writing without altering its essential character. There are many problems with the much-publicised passage in the latest edition of Roald Dahl’s Matilda where references to Kipling and so forth are replaced with references to Jane Austen etc, but the biggest one is that it doesn’t read like Roald Dahl anymore.

All of which is to say that, whatever the rights and wrongs of it, a third party “fixing” literature (or any art form for that matter) has its limitations. I remember reading an interview with the director of the British Board of Film Classification back in the early ‘90s, discussing John McNaughton’s notorious Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer. He was concerned about the film – though he didn’t dismiss it as worthless trash – but his main worry was that it couldn’t be meaningfully cut to reduce its horrific elements because it was the movie’s tone, rather than its content that was worrisome. A few years earlier, the BBFC had unwittingly made Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop more brutal by editing a few seconds from the scene where the giant robot ED-209 shoots an executive for a ridiculously long time in a botched demonstration. In the original cut, the shooting goes on for so ludicrously long that it becomes pure black comedy; cut down a little it becomes a lot less funny and therefore far nastier and (negating the point of the edit) more traumatic for a young audience. There is a reasonable argument that seeing someone get shot to death by a giant robot should be traumatic, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the BBFC’s motive in making the cuts, since the movie was rated 18 and theoretically not to be seen by children anyway.

A children’s novel (or at least a novel given to children to read) that comes under fire for mostly understandable reasons in American schools is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. But though the casual use of ‘the N word’ is possibly removable, what would removing it achieve? What people are objecting to isn’t really/hopefully just the language, it’s the era and the society that Mark Twain was writing about; how could you and why would you want to remove that context from the book? Making it into a story where African-Americans are, in the narrative, demonstrably second class citizens but no one ever refers to their status by using nasty names seems in a way more problematic than the racist language itself. Similarly, The Catcher in the Rye has been controversial for decades, but what difference would taking the offensive words out of it make? The only real solution, editing-wise for those who object to the ‘offensive’ material in the book would be to make it so that Holden Caulfield doesn’t get expelled from school, doesn’t hang around bars drinking while underage, doesn’t hire a prostitute and get threatened by her pimp, doesn’t continuously rant about everyone he meets; to make him happier in fact. Well, that’s all very nice and laudable in its way and it’s theoretically what Holden himself would want, but it’s not what JD Salinger would have wanted and whatever book came out of it wouldn’t be The Catcher in the Rye.

Fathom Five 80s rewrite – terrible cover, good book

But, since there is no Stalinist attempt to destroy the books of the past, it’s not all negative. To go back to the Fathom Five example; as a kid I thought there was something fascinating about the phantom “Jack” and had the internet existed at the time I probably wouldn’t have been able to resist trying to track down an un-revised edition of the book.  I still might – but would it be worth it? Well possibly; authors and artists tampering with their old work is always fascinating, but usually it’s the revised version that is less satisfying. In the preface to the 1928 edition of his then ten-year-old novel Tarr, Wyndham Lewis wrote;

turning back to [Tarr] I have always felt that as regards form it should not appear again as it stood, for it was written with extreme haste, during the first year of the War, during a period of illness and restless convalescence. Accordingly for the present edition I have throughout finished what was rough and given the narrative everywhere a greater precision.

Reading that, you already know that the 1918 text is better, and it is. Lewis was a restless reviser of his written works, but for every improvement he made – and he did make many – he lost some of the explosive quality that keeps his often over-elaborate writing alive. As with Lewis, William Wordsworth tampered with his The Prelude – Growth of a Poet’s Mind throughout his life. Like Lewis, some of the changes he made were less to do with the character of the poem than the evolving character of the man who wrote it. The Prelude is an autobiographical work and when Wordsworth first completed the poem in 1805, he was in his mid-30s, a successful youngish poet with some lingering radical tendencies. When he completed the final version, somewhere around 1840, he was a respected, conservative and establishment figure with very mixed feelings about his wilder youth. Both versions are equally valid in their different ways and if the later version doesn’t really eclipse the first – and has shades of the Oompa-Loompa redesign about it – the reader is glad to have both. The point with these examples is that all remain available; if Wyndham Lewis had managed to destroy all the copies of the 1918 Tarr or Wordsworth had somehow “taped over” the 1805 Prelude the world would be a poorer place. When it comes to reworking previous triumphs (or failures) literature is no different from the other arts. Some visual artists – Leonardo Da Vinci is the classic example – can never stop messing with their work, and the film industry (think of the phenomenon of the “Director’s cut”) and the music industry frequently have these moments too. In 1988, after 8 years of complaining about the cheap production of their debut album, Iron Maiden finally decided to re-record its opening track, “Prowler” with their then-current line-up and the expensive studios now available to them. Even if original singer Paul Di-Anno hadn’t sung the song better (but he did), “Prowler ’88,” oddly tired and flabby sounding, would still be vastly inferior to the basic-but-vital original; sometimes artists just aren’t the best judges of their own work. U2’s latest venture, essentially re-recording and reworking their greatest hits, has received mixed reviews; but though one has to accept in good faith that the band thinks it was a worthwhile exercise, it’s unlikely that they have enough confidence in the new versions to replace the originals on their actual Greatest Hits from here on in.

Lord of the Rings in drafts

A similar, but backwards version of the above has taken place with JRR Tolkien. A whole industry has been generated from his decades-long struggle with The Lord of the Rings, but the difference here is that the earlier material was only posthumously published. Tolkien himself probably wouldn’t have been hugely enamoured with the idea of the public reading about the adventures of Bingo Bolger-Baggins, “Trotter” et al, but as a fan it’s fascinating seeing the slow evolution of not only the book and its characters, but Middle Earth itself, with its re-drawn maps and growing sense of newly-uncovered history. In this case though, Tolkien was  the best judge of his work; The History of Middle Earth is vast, an even more, but very differently, epic journey than The Lord of the Rings, but the final draft has, unlike the 1928 Tarr, a sense of life and completeness missing from all of the previous drafts and half-drafts. Partly no doubt this was because – again unlike Tarr – The Lord of the Rings remained a work-in-progress and Tolkien’s main focus for many years – the characters and setting ‘grew in the telling’ (as Tolkien puts it) and reached a kind of three-dimensional quality that is missing from most epic fantasy novels, despite Tolkien’s reticence in so many areas, notably (but not only) sex.

Fiona Shaw’s superb Richard II (1995)

Alongside the concern/faux concern of “wokifying” children’s books, there’s a similar list of complaints from the usual people about the “wokifying” of TV and film adaptations of classic literature (or just literature), but here I think they are only wrong with nothing to redeem their wrongness. Firstly, because adaptations are always collaborations – and in a movie adaptation of, say, Barnaby Rudge, the artist isn’t Dickens, whose work is already complete, but those making the film. Adaptations are just that, they adapt, they don’t and can’t precisely transcribe from one art form into another. Early-Primary-School-me thought that Gene Wilder was the wrong guy to play Willy Wonka – adult me can see that in the most important way, the spirit-of-the-text way, he’s completely right. He just doesn’t look like the illustrations I knew or sound the way I thought he should sound. I would say the same (in the capturing-the-spirit sense) about Dev Patel’s David in The Personal History of David Copperfield and Fiona Shaw’s Richard II or the fact that Tilda Swinton could give a note-perfect performance as all the incarnations of the title character in Sally Potter’s Orlando. Colour and/or gender-blind casting (and all the variations thereof) can give directors and performers ways of finding the real heart of a story – or just revitalising something that has grown stale through familiarity – that conventional casting might not – and unlike replacing the word ‘fat’ with ‘stout’ or ‘large’ in a kid’s book, it keeps the work alive for a new audience, or even an old one.

Secondly (I think I wrote ‘firstly’ way back there somewhere), time, scholarship and cultural evolution give us a greater understanding of the context of a novel or play. It’s now clear that Britain, through the 20th century, back into Victorian and even medieval times and beyond, had a much broader ethnic and cultural mix than you might ever suspect from the country’s artistic record. And with that understanding, it becomes clear that characters that occasionally did appear in British fiction of the 19th century and earlier, whether Jewish, Chinese, Black, gay, whatever; tend to be represented stereotypes to stress their otherness, but in those stories that otherness has grown rather than lessened over the years as the real-life otherness diminishes. In addition, through the passage of time, the gradations of apparently homogenous British characters, even in relatively recent fiction, tend to blend into each other. Nowadays, Dickens seems to many of us to be full of rich and poor characters, but for Dickens’s audience the social differences between the upper, upper-middle, middle, lower-middle, working and under-classes would seem far more marked than they do today and therefore even a caricature like Fagin in Oliver Twist would be part of a far richer tapestry of caricatures than now, when he stands out in ever more stark relief. We can’t, hopefully don’t want to and shouldn’t change the novels themselves – indeed, the idea of a modern writer being tasked with toning down the character of Fagin or Shylock in The Merchant of Venice highlights how ridiculous the treatment of children’s books is, as well as the devalued position they have in the pantheon of literature. But in adapting the works for the screen, the truer a picture we can paint of the society of the time when the works were written or are set, the more accurately we can capture what contemporary audiences would have experienced and perhaps gain more of an insight into the author’s world-view too.

Thirdly, and on a more trivial level; why not make adaptations more free and imaginative, not only to give a more accurate and nuanced picture of the past, or to ‘breathe new life’ etc, but just for the joyous, creative sake of it? The source material is untouched after all. Fairly recently, a comedian/actor that I had hitherto respected, complained online about the inclusion of actors of colour in an episode of Doctor Who, in which the Doctor travels back in time to London in some past era, on the grounds that it was ‘unrealistic.’ Well, if you can readily accept the time-travelling, gender-swapping Timelord from Gallifrey and its logic-defying time/space machine, but only for as long as olden days London is populated entirely by white people – as it probably wasn’t, from at least the Roman period onwards – then I don’t know what to tell you.

So maybe the answer is yes, change the books if you must; remove the old words and references, make them into something new and palatably bland as fashion dictates – but just don’t destroy the old ones and please, acknowledge the edits. Let the children of the future wonder about that strange note that says the book they are reading isn’t the same book it used to be, and maybe they will search out the old editions and be educated, shocked or amused in time; it’s all good. But until it happens to obscure books too, let’s not pretend the motives for ‘fixing’ them are entirely humanitarian.

 

a portrait of the author as a young arse

 

 

 

early attempts at writing (and drawing)

Between the ages of 19 and 21, I wrote a series of notes (the longest is about a page, so somewhere between a sketch and a mini-essay I guess) that made up a kind of summary of my worldview at the time. At this point I don’t remember why I wrote them, but I’m sure it wasn’t for its own sake; they were probably things that were to be “boiled down” and processed and incorporated somehow into poetry, strange though that sounds. From an early age, I always wanted to write. The first things I remember voluntarily writing are simplified versions of the kind of fantasy gamebooks that were then hugely popular with kids. The Swords & Sorcery series (more about that by one of the other authors of the series here) emulated Steve Jackson and Ian Livinstone’s Fighting Fantasy single-player role-playing game books pretty shamelessly but were a lot of (complicated) fun to write, though few of them were actually finished. These were followed by (and/or parallel to) various short horror stories, but in the long adolescence that seems to have lasted in my case from 15 until 25 or so, I mostly wrote poetry. It’s fair to say that it was not good.
The notes though, are fun.

They cover a range of topics – politics, religion, aesthetics, social issues, ecology, the monarchy – and are exceptionally embarrassing to read. But interesting too, because although I do of course remember being 19-21, I otherwise only have the distorting mirror of my own memory to go by, and my own taste in music, books etc, which give a kind of connection to ur-me. But these notes are pretty much what I thought, expressed to the best of my ability (or thereabouts). They reveal some interesting things I had not realised about my younger self. Although I generally did fairly well in English at school, I now see that my spelling was quite erratic (especially on words ending in -itely, which I always wanted to make -ately, like ‘definately’) and that I must not have learned the it’s/its rule until later. The pieces are typed, on an actual typewriter as I didn’t own a computer at the time, which was not actually all that strange then. More to the point though, by that age my always-terrible handwriting had deteriorated to the point where I myself found it hard to read things I had written after any length of time had lapsed. The socio-political/geographical background to the notes was the bitter, tail end of the UK’s thousand year Tory Reich that I grew up in. Thatcher had by then gone, but the evolution/mutation into the Major era had made very little difference, except insofar as John Major himself was vastly inferior as a hate figure than Thatcher had been.

It’s funny; the arrogance and certainty of youth is well-known, but I am very surprised to find it in myself. I have rarely met anyone less sure of themselves or more reticent than my late-teens/early-20s self, but that doesn’t really come across at all, except in a few deliberately self-deprecating caveats, and there’s an infuriating cockiness to some of the writing that I not only don’t identify with, but really detest; what’s mortifying is that I was genuinely trying to think deeply about the issues I covered so shallowly. Oh well, I hope I wasn’t actually that obnoxious in everyday life, but who knows? (anyone who knew me). On the other hand, my actual views don’t seem to have changed as much as I would have expected. I was more of a libertarian, albeit a left-wing one then, perhaps a bit more pessimistic, but on the whole I would still find myself on the same side of most of the arguments I am making, which is reassuring.

I don’t intend to transcribe very much of the writing here because I can’t bear to, mostly, but here’s a synopsis of the contents of the documents and there will be a couple of more extended examples below that illustrate how much/little/comically times have changed since then (the mid-1990s)

I don’t know if these were ever in any order, but here’s what I have:

“Classic Myths” – examining, in very little depth or detail, how things become “classics.” It ends with the question (re. literature) “how many great works have disappeared into the mists of time due to personal taste or political, religeous [sic] or moral qualms on the part of the academics of the past?” At this point I was reading the long out-of-fashion (and out of print) poetry of Robert Southey which was, to be honest mostly pretty hard going – but I was determined to like his early, pro-revolutionary work from his ‘Pantisocracy’ days with Coleridge, and I did, when I could find it anywhere.

“The Eye of the Beholder – One” This was me complaining about how Hollywood/popular culture/fashion were making standards of beauty ever more bland in a diminishing returns/vicious circle kind of way. Its exceptionally snooty tone was coloured by the fact that I was discovering the movies of the silent and pre-Hays code era and my own personal objects of desire were people like Louise Brooks, Joan Blondell and Marlene Dietrich. Sample of tone: “Sadly this means that when a certain actor or actress is in a hit film, similar actors and actresses will appear in similar films and so on and on, to ever-diminishing effect, until a new trend (snowboarding and dark hair, perhaps) transforms the screen for a few months or weeks(…) this ever-growing supply and demand for something familiar makes it hard for original voices to be heard, or any kind of innovation or talent to gain an audience.😬


“Religion Crazy” – This is pretty much what you’d expect from an atheist teenager, full of such blinding revelations as “Religion has often looked to me like a cunning scheme invented by some ancient tyrant to keep the peasants in their place” and, even better, “intolerance of religion and the religious is a vice I magnanimously allow myself to indulge in.” My own lack of belief hasn’t changed in the slightest since the days when I used to look around the room during the morning recitation of the Lord’s Prayer at Primary School, to see who else had their eyes open. But I though I don’t necessarily disagree with him (and actually am him), I don’t really feel much kinship with the writer of these lines, or especially his tone, now: “Am I to believe in a petty, small-minded god who creates something only to punish and destroy it? Maybe in a bored or indifferent god, as is suggested by its (had to correct it, sorry) conspicuous absence in the last few centuries. Perhaps it is more interested in ants than people, and appears to them all the the time.

“Sexuality and Children” Luckily I was aware even then that this was an alarming and “rather dodgy” title, but essentially it was about the debate then ongoing about gay parents adopting children. My attitude (as with many of my then-attitudes) was essentially a slightly shaky but very teenage libertarian one: who is entitled to tell other adults how to live their lives? “Aside from (fairly ridiculous) superstitious quibbles which can be disregarded at once, (by me anyway) there is no reason on Earth why it is the business of any but those directly involved.” I still think the same thing, more or less but again the tone is, to be kind, insufferably annoying.


“Not Winning isn’t Losing” – politics, kind of. Contains nuggets like “My ideal political situation is unworkable (…) (it) amounts to well behaved anarchy.” But again, I still believe parts of it, despite painfully naive bits, like “The impossibility of a left-wing political ideal does not mean it is hopeless – indeed the opposite is true. Because it can never be attained, there would always be a working towards it – the lack of destination would improve the journey. The effect of a constant working towards a state of freedom and equality would inevitably lead to and ever-improving state of more freedom and more equality – which can not be bad.

“Books” – this is funny, so I’ll write about it in more depth later


“Power Crazed”  This is one single line, which I hope isn’t true: “There can never be a good Prime Minister, because Prime Ministers are people whose ambition is to rule the country.

“Limits” – an excruciating piece about nationalism/patriotism and so forth, in which our author pompously concludes “As far as I’m concerned, I find it absolutely impossible to feel either proud or ashamed of anything that occurred completely beyond my control – race, sex (I guess I meant as in gender), sexuality – or where I was born.”

“Money” – a blindingly obvious revelation that the idea of money is, when you look at it, kind of silly. “Why is gold a valuable metal? Presumably because it looks nicer than other metals, and there is less of it.” etc, etc


“Tripping on the Catwalk” In which I make my ignorance about the fashion industry obvious, and which includes the bizarre statement that “its nearest relative is perhaps the academic world of the university. It is completely self supporting, untouched by recession, mainly due to the fact that it is run by bored rich people for bored rich people.” I am now fairly sure that this isn’t 100% true. I also predicted “an eighties-style big shoulders revival (though with a nineties twist of course) before the turn of the millennium.” I don’t remember if that happened or not, but it’s happened since then.

“Royalty at the End of the Millennium” – Oddly, this is one of the longer pieces. As it’s as topical in the new reign of Charles III as it was then (?) I’ll deal with it later

“Part(l)y Politics One” Despite the parenthetical ‘l’ this is pretty much about party politics. In short; the Conservative Party is contemptible (“I have to assume some right-wingers are intelligent, though I have seen little evidence of this”). But I also seem to be saying that because conservatism is based on the fear of change and the desire for stability, plus an array of standard human failings; ignorance, fear, confusion, greed etc, it will always appeal to a large part of the population.

I theorise, not entirely inaccurately, about a pattern that I hadn’t then seen in action and which I later saw parts of in action – because Conservative governments appeal to the worst in people, they REALLY have to mess up before they get voted out. So therefore, any prospective left-wing government will spend a good deal of time un-wrecking the country, with consequent hardships. The public and opposition will naturally blame those in charge for those hardships, the problem then becomes that a progressive party gets voted out, but the incumbent right wing party inherits a country on the mend, which they take credit for, before ruining everything again. That’s not exactly how Tories – Labour – Tories played out in our time but it still feels plausible and at least not untrue.

“interlude” – between the two “Part(l)y Politics” pieces there’s a short kind of non sequitur in which I claim that the politics of the left, taken to their furthest extreme (i.e. ideologically, rather than in real life) is “a nice, if unworkable idea based on equality and human rights” while the politics of the right taken to their furthest extreme is ”at best an extremely nasty and distressingly workable idea based on hatred, repression and manipulation.” Not sure I agree with either of those statements now, though I think my heart was in the right place.

“Part(l)y Politics Two”in which I complain that the Labour Party (and by extension any party of “the workers” is hopelessly compromised by a system in which becoming an MP is an ordinary middle class career choice, rather than being a kind of glorified shop steward. This was the Neil Kinnock/John Smith/Margaret Beckett era and I complain about the same thing that every Labour-voter-by-default has complained about ever since: that Labour in opposition try too hard to be all things to all people, appeal to Tory voters, are middle-of-the-road and inoffensive rather than truly progressive etc. It’s all very pessimistic: “We can only hope that this [middle-of-the-road inoffensiveness] is a sort of ruse to gain power, whereupon the new and hopefully forceful, idea-led Labour Party will throw off its current greyness, the spectre of past success and failure and emerge as a strong socialist party for the twenty-first century (…) The conservatives ‘accuse’ the Labour Party of being the same old socialist party underneath. This seems sadly unlikely – we understand socialism to be a system based on fairer distribution of wealth and of equality etc etc – the Labour Party does not seem to be offering this. We will vote for them, because there is no one else to vote for.

“Opposites Attract” – this is a self-pitying whine about how “the plain or ugly are naturally attracted to the good looking, the handsome, the beautiful. The good looking, the handsome and the beautiful are naturally attracted to the good looking, the handsome, the beautiful. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but few beholders’ eyes will want to linger very long on the truly unattractive person.” I actually wrote this stuff down.

“Inhumanity” Here it is: “’Man’s inhumanity to man’ is a phrase used to describe acts which are definingly human. What other species would (or could) have had the atomic bomb, or the holocaust? It is a deceptive and cowardly phrase.” Well alright then.

“Food Philistine” – A strange and very silly short piece in which I discover that my attitude to food (though I had “no aversion to it”) was “the same as my attitude to sleep – if I could do without it, I would.” I don’t feel that way about either food or sleep now, really and until now I didn’t realise I had ever felt that way.

“Money, money, money” In short, class = wealth. The problem with Britain is (I seem to be saying) that the upper class control the wealth of the working class while the complacent middle class are indifferent as long as they are comfortable & therefore provide the upper class with a comfortable mattress to insulate them from the should-be-revolutionary consequences of their greed. It may be true?

“The Eye of the Beholder Two” – this time it’s all about how I prefer brutalist architecture to old churches etc and prefer the “drab emptiness” of municipal parks, deserted backstreets etc to epic, panoramic landscapes. Nowadays I like all of those things.

“Responsibility” A “pro choice” rant that, I’m glad but surprised to say, reads exactly like the social media posts of ‘pro choice’ people in the last few years – it begins “The anti-abortion lobby, for all their rhetoric about the sanctity of human life, seem to disregard entirely (and with great relish) the quality of human life. Indeed, they seem to enjoy inflicting misery wherever they go.” And it ends with the even more 2020s-ish: “To the anti-abortionist, the human being is only a human being until it is born. After that it is not their problem.” I was right then and still am now: yay me.

“Censored” In which I get on my high horse about the right to watch violent horror movies: “When I hear that a member of the British Board of Film Classification has embarked on an orgy of violence and mayhem using a chainsaw, I will begin to believe that film violence has an effect on the viewer (if it happens twice.)” I DO think it has an effect on the viewer – actually, I hope it does, or why even bother? Disturbing things should be disturbing. But my views on censorship (if no harm is done in the making of it then who has the right to say an adult shouldn’t watch it) are pretty much the same. I probably believe in ‘classification’ and parental responsibility more now than I did then though.

“A Fair Day’s Pay…” Manual workers should be at the top of the pay pyramid as their work is harder and more necessary, but pen pushers are in charge of wages etc so it’ll never happen, he seems to be saying.

“Animals” A very dubious piece in which I query the relative value of human beings and other animals, slightly in favour of other animals, or at least not in favour of us humans.

“Power Corrupts – Small time” Power corrupts – this is an indisputable fact,” I say – but is it? Anyway, my premise is that dictators are bad and all, but for really corrupt power you have to look at school teachers and small-town police officers.

“Grown Men and Women” – Me, moaning about sport

“How to Spoke Proper” – In short,“speaking properly” (in the UK sense) is a classist fantasy based on the random fact that the BBC happened to be founded in the south of England. This may or may not be true.

“Rules of Attraction” – “Sexuality has nothing to do with morality,” he says, “I am attracted to members of the opposite sex because I was born this way – so if I saw a member of my own sex who looked like a member of the opposite sex in a way that I found attractive, I would naturally be attracted to them, for as long as they looked like an attractive female. I do not see how there can be anything wrong with this, or any variation of it.” This sounds like an argument with some lurking real-life subtext, but to the best of my knowledge now, it wasn’t.

“The Sea” – it’s about the sea, which I apparently felt very strongly about. I still love the sea but can’t imagine writing very emotionally about it.

“Philosophy”As an atheist is there any more logical philosophy than to live a life of pure hedonism? I seem to conclude not, but for me at the time this was a purely hypothetical question

“Against Nature” –  Here it is in full: “Humankind is natural, as much a part of nature as anything else on the planet. Everything humankind does is natural. The worst it can do (selfishly speaking) is to kill itself off, which in a universal sense, would be no big loss.” I was in some ways a very standard teenager I guess. Joy Division was probably my favourite band at that point

So, here are the more extended bits.

Firstly, I’ve chosen “Books” because it is the one that most amusingly makes the 1990s seem like it was a million years ago. My main argument is that though people were (as they always seem to have been) predicting the death of the printed word, books are unlikely to be replaced by anything else. But let young Will explain it, as his Nostradamus-like powers of prediction don’t seem to have anticipated the Kindle. More strangely, he does not seem to be aware of laptops, didn’t they already exist in the mid-90s? Surely! To be fair to him though, “we” still prefer a book to a kindle or tablet which I can’t stand using unless it’s the only way to read something.

Anyway, the death of books will not happen, he says, because…
They are convenient, we [he often calls himself ‘we’] cannot imagine taking even a small computer on a train or plane, or to the beach or on holiday in our suitcase – though this may be possible in the future. We like to go back a page and reread something, whilst[!] keeping our place on the page we have reached. We like the thought, whether we actually do it or not, of being able to read Wordsworth in the mountains of the Lake District – we feel that a keyboard and a screen would take away a rather large part of the romance of this.”

Royalty at the End of the Millennium” is fun because it’s surprisingly still topical (up to a point) and begins by saying things, far more grumpily, that I probably still think. I’ll transcribe as much of it as I can bear, with the faulty punctuation and repetition intact because the tediousness is part of the fun. Still, it’s odd and a bit alarming to find a UKIP-ish tone intruding re. the funding of the Royal family, even if I thought I was playing Devil’s avocado (as I might have said) at the time.

Why do (how can) people like the Royal Family? I don’t know. What is even stranger than this affection is the public liking one member of the family, and (apparently randomly) not another. ‘Fergie’ seems to be disliked for acting like any normal person suddenly coming into a huge amount of money i.e. spending it. People who claim to dislike her because of affairs etc seem to forget or dismiss the affairs of (practically all) other family members.
People liking (or even loving) Princess Diana is one of the biggest mysteries of our age. The myth of Diana as a beautiful woman started before the Royal Wedding and continue to this day. Are these people blind? Do they really believe it? Are they just trying to sell newspapers or cash in on Royal memorabilia? Who knows? The fact is that she is an average, ordinary-looking woman in her thirties with a large nose, large chin, and even larger amount of money to make the most of what she has with.*  (The reader may be forgiven for assuming that the writer of these words must be very handsome, to stand in judgement of other peoples looks – this is certainly not the case – but I do not have a media conspiracy trying to convince people that I am).
More seriously (and it is a serious matter when a country is in a serious[!] recession, and yet it’s people give millions of pounds a year to keep one family in, well, the lap of luxury would be a gross understatement – especially when this one family already has millions of pounds of inherited private wealth). What are the reasons for and against the Royal Family?

Well, the for argument usually falls into two compartments[?] – tradition, and (feebly) that the Royals are good for the economy via the tourist trade. The first of these is the stronger of the two and yet doesn’t really bear close inspection – is it necessarily good because it’s traditional? Yes, the family is descended from a long line of noble (i.e. rich) families – but they are not necessarily British families. They are Greek, they are German, but there is not an awful lot of British blood in there. As far as I am concerned, this would not matter, except that the arguments for usually draw attention to it being a great British tradition, or institution. I can only say that it’s not much of a native tradition that has the British public paying money to a European family to make them even richer.”

Some more highlights – this is just too tedious to write out in full:
There are few things as irritating as hearing how hard the Queen works – give me a few million pounds a year and I will be glad to attend dinners, meet dignitaries and travel abroad – not many people would turn down an offer like this.
The arguments against are much easier to state – they don’t do anything, we pay for them for being related to people, they are a British tradition which involves few British people, they could exist in comfort without public money, they represent an outdated (and according to the Prime Minister) non-existant class system, they stagger from one scandal to another and in a country with an underfunded health service, underfunded system of education, a large homeless population and mentally ill people being turned out onto the streets** they are a mockery of and insult to our supposedly democratic society.”

So there we have it, an unexpected meeting with my apparently slightly intense, smart-assed but ridiculous younger self. Nice to catch up but I’m not sure I’d want to hang out with him!

*Yes, I genuinely wrote “to make the most of what she has with”

**I assume this has something to do with the “care in the community” scandal that seemed to be unfolding during the last few years of the Thatcher/Major era

 

 

 

music of my mind (whether I like it or not)

Since the age of 13 or so, music has been an important part of my life. I have written about it for various places, including here, here, here, here and, um, here, but more than that, I listen to music that I don’t have to write about pretty much every day.

I was going to write something about my favourite songs or whatever (and may do still), but thinking about it made me tune into the music that plays in my head, almost constantly and seemingly involuntarily, as the general background to my day. Involuntarily, because when tuned into, it becomes obvious that quite a bit of it is stuff that I wouldn’t necessarily listen to at all. Trying to keep track of the music of your mind is difficult though, because as soon as one focuses on it, one begins to/you begin to – that is, in my case I begin to influence it. Even when it is music that you like and listen to by choice, it’s rarely anything that seems specific to the present moment in a movie soundtrack kind of way – at the moment for instance, it’s Deirdre by the Beach Boys. It’s January (cue January by Pilot – sometimes the conscious mind and/or context does influence these things), so not really a season associated with the Beach Boys, I’m not especially in a Beach Boys kind of mood, I don’t know anyone called Deirdre; but the subconscious mind has determined that that’s what we are playing right now. Playing, but also listening to; it’s peculiar when you think about it.

Though the trombone on Deirdre (which I love) prevents it from being a “cool” choice, this could of course be an opportunity to display cooler-than-thou hipsterism, but as you’ll see in the (mostly DON’T) playlist below, lack of conscious control seems to equate to lack of quality control too. With that in mind, I won’t include things that popped into my head fleetingly, like the immortal  Everybody Gonfi Gon by 2 Cowboys or jingles from advertisements by Kwik Fit (or, more locally, Murisons, whatever that is/was). Not that the songs below have all appeared in their entirety – in some cases I don’t even know the whole song, in several I only know a few lines of the lyrics. So anyway, here – as comprehensively as I can make it – is what I have “heard” today, with notes where there’s anything to say and concluding thoughts at the end…

The 5th January 2023 being-playedlist – *warning* contains actual songs

Thank You for Being a Friend (Theme from the Golden Girls).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HV7AXRABSng

I have no idea where this came from or why I should apparently be thinking of it, but it’s been a regular on the ‘playlist’ this week. I’ve noticed that some songs stay in rotation for a while, sometimes evolving along the way. A key feature of these kinds of songs is that the ‘voice’ your brain chooses for them and the lyrics etc might be quite different from the real ones, especially when it’s a song you don’t actually know the lyrics of. I haven’t seen The Golden Girls for decades, or heard the theme tune (I included the video without playing it), so this seems an especially odd one. But perhaps it’s an early morning thing; while writing this it occurred to me that the theme from Happy Days has been popping into my head in the shower a lot recently.

Wham! – Last Christmas

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8gmARGvPlI

It feels like extremely bad taste to be subjected to one of my least favourite festive songs, after Christmas, especially since I seem to have successfully avoided this one last year – but oh well, something in the Golden Girls theme apparently suggests it, since they tend to occur together.

Frank Sinatra – Young At Heart

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aZRn4auk4PQ

I’ve never intentionally listened to this song, but I guess it’s part of “the culture.” But at least it’s less mysterious than the Golden Girls theme; on my early morning walk there’s a creaky gate that makes a note that somehow puts this song in my mind, though it took me a few days to realise that’s what was happening.

Magnum – Just Like an Arrow

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJeLByGsOGo

I like this song – and cheesy 80s Magnum generally – a lot, but it’s another one I haven’t intentionally listened to for a long time. Maybe this is my brain’s way of telling me to revisit it?

Jim Diamond – Hi Ho Silver

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p6mjSAgxusM

Still stuck in the 80s, but this time in the company of a song I loathe and detest; why brain, why? Isn’t this another one that’s TV-related in some way? John Logie Baird has a lot to answer for, clearly

Men at Work – Down Under

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XfR9iY5y94s

*Still* in the 80s, but at least it’s a song I don’t dislike. I’m not sure if I’ve ever deliberately listened to this song (you didn’t need to “back in the day”, you heard it everywhere) but it’s been a regular visitor to my brain for many years. There was even a harrowing few weeks (or months – it seemed like a long time) – when it formed a weird medley in my mind with Paul Simon’s Call Me Al (one of the few of his songs I actually dislike). Except that Call me Al had different lyrics at various points. I remember that the flute (recorder?) part of Down Under came in just after the last line of the chorus. Since that time, whenever I’ve heard that song I’ve been half-surprised that the segue doesn’t happen.

The Supremes – Baby Love

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZAWSiWtUK2s

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZAWSiWtUK2s

At least most of these are cheerful songs I guess? This one always makes me think of that objectively quite strange scene in Quentin Tarantino’s (in my opinion) best movie by miles, Jackie Brown

Mull Historical Society – Barcode Bypass

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=StWYuUbl4M8

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=StWYuUbl4M8

Oh well, they can’t all be cheerful. I’m guessing the opening line “let me get my gloves/and walk the dogs for miles” has something to do with the inclusion of this one. I like it, but the weary melancholy is not at all the mood of most of these.

Slayer – Raining Blood

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gy3BOmvLf2w

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gy3BOmvLf2w

???Why not, I suppose?

King Crimson – Fallen Angel

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eLlmbCkb3As

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eLlmbCkb3As

Mysterious: I like bits and pieces of King Crimson but I’m surprised to find that I know this song at all, since I don’t even own the album it’s on (Red, 1974) or any compilations etc. I wonder how I know it? I had to look it up from a fragment of lyric that I knew, but sure enough, it’s Fallen Angel. I thought the only song of that title that I knew was the arguably superior one by Poison, but that’s an argument for another day

Souls of Mischief – ’93 ‘Til Infinity

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXJc2NYwHjw

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXJc2NYwHjw

What this has to do with anything is anyone’s guess; I like it, it’s a classic and all, but I think I heard an alarm of some kind in the distance that somehow morphed into that noise in the background during the “Dial the seven digits” bit. But more importantly, is Tajai really wearing a cricket jumper? And if so, how come he looks cool doing so?

Which brings us up to date and Deirdre: but what other wonders lie ahead?

The Beach Boys – Deirdre

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IsDYy1l6TQU

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IsDYy1l6TQU

Conclusion: Hm. I don’t know: the subconscious mind is almost a separate entity with different and broader tastes than its conscious host? Or it has a masochistic streak? Or absorbing decades of unwanted stimuli from pop culture means that there has to be a continual processing (with some regrettable but hopefully harmless leakage) in order to function in any kind of normal, rational way, like an overspilling of the dream state into the waking one? Or maybe the brain is constantly making observations and connections that are necessary for its normal functioning (things like intuition and mood) but which the conscious brain has little or no access to except in this oblique way. A lot of this stuff is from the 80s, when I was growing up and absorbing knowledge etc: whatever; being human is strange sometimes. Hope you’re enjoying whatever your brain is treating you to today!

the semi-obligatory album of the year type thing (2022 edition)

 

It’s been a few years since I did an ‘album of the year’ post here, because in general I have to write them for other places and get a bit bored with the process, but this year I thought I’d do something a little different.

But first: albums of the year 2022

My album of the year, by a big margin was Diamanda Galás’s extraordinary Broken Gargoyles. I’ve written about it at length here and here, and had the privilege of discussing it with Diamanda herself here, so won’t say too much about it, except for one observation. People usually use the phrase ‘life-affirming’ to describe records that are joyous, uplifting or leave you with feelings of positivity and contentment. All good things, but Broken Gargoyles is not that album. Instead, it’s life-affirming in the sense that it heightens the sense of being alive and even interrogates the idea of what it really means and how it feels, to be human. It’s thrilling and sometimes beautiful, but also harrowing; and how many musicians even attempt anything like that?

My other favourites this year included Shiki by the Japanese avant-garde black metal band Sigh. It follows in the eclectic footsteps of their past few albums but whereas they blended bits of black metal, prog rock, jazz and so on with sometimes great, sometimes patchy results, Shiki blends them in a far more cohesive and successful way where every song is everything and not this genre-with-a-bit-of-that.

I also loved Beth Orton’s Weather Alive, which I wrote about here, and a very late entry in the AOTY stakes (I literally heard it this week for the first time) is Hjartastjaki by Isafjørd. One genre I have very rarely liked or understood the appeal of is post-rock, but this – a collaboration between Addi of Sólstafir (who I do like – they played one of the best sets I’ve ever seen by anyone at Eistnaflug Festival in 2011) and Ragnar Zolberg – gripped me from the first listen and I currently can’t get enough of it. Even though it’s not at all like it in any way, something about it – maybe just the epically mournful atmosphere – reminds me of Disintegration by The Cure, which is never a bad thing.

So much for 2022. But how much importance should one place on the album of any given year? Albums, like movies, books or any other form of entertainment stay with you if they are any good, and your feelings about them change over time. And some of my favourite albums of all time were released before I was even born, so their context presumably doesn’t necessarily contribute to their impact, on a personal level at least. I’ve been writing for myself since I first started my old blog in 2012 so for a kind of half-assed ten-year anniversary I thought I’d revisit my older albums of the year and see which ones had staying power for me. I’ll limit it to a few from each year so it doesn’t get out of hand.

Strangely I didn’t do one for my own site in 2012 and I don’t have the list I did for Zero Tolerance magazine that year to hand so let’s go from 2013 to 2019, since 2020 is only two years ago and ‘the test of time’ hasn’t completely been passed or failed yet…

2013

My favourite album of that year was Ihsahn’s Das Seelenbrechen, and it’s still one of my favourite albums. I rarely listen to it all the way through at the moment, but various tracks, such as Pulse, Regen and NaCL are still in regular rotation

Others:
David Bowie – The Next Day: I loved this at the time and it felt like a return to form of some sort, but now, though there are some great tracks, it feels a middling Bowie record
Ancient VVisdom: Deathlike – good kind of pastoral black doom/blues (!?) album but haven’t listened to it probably for years at this point
October Falls – The Plague of a Coming Age – very nice, interchangeable with any other October Falls record. They are all nice, I don’t listen to them very often
Sangre de Muerdago – Deixademe Morrer No Bosque: I still play bits of this dark Galician folk album from time to time. It’s great but I’ve never got around to listening to any of their other stuff
Manierisme – フローリア I LOVED Manierisme, and the atmosphere and noise of it still really isn’t like much else. But it’s so harsh in its peculiar way that I rarely listen to it now
Beastmilk – Climax: worth mentioning this because Finnish post-punks Beastmilk (who changed their name to Grave Pleasures and lost their appeal for me pretty quickly) were a much-hyped band that year. It still sounds like a pretty good gothy post-punk type of record, but I had to check it out to remind myself of that

2014

My favourite album of 2014 was Mondegreen by the avant-garde string quartet Collectress and I still love it and listen to bits of it quite often
Most of 2014’s list are just names to me now, though I’m sure they are pretty good: I quite liked Scott Walker & Sun O)))’s Soused but have never revisited it. I thought Mirel Wagner’s When the Cellar Children See the Light of Day was great but don’t really remember it – must check it out again. Nebelung’s Palingenesis has some really nice songs on it that I listen to occasionally.

2015

My album of 2015 was Life is a Struggle, Give Up by Oblivionized. Putting it on again for the first time in ages, it’s still an invigorating, unique semi-grindcore album. Also kind of harsh and draining, so not a frequent listen, but an album worthy of rediscovery nonetheless.

Much easier to listen to but at the time outside of my top ten is the great Hustler’s Row by

surprise sleeper – Hustler’s Row by Gentlemens Pistols

Gentlemens Pistols. I would not have predicted that this would be one of the records that I’d keep returning to but it is: people who love 70s hard rock of the Deep Purple/Rainbow type who haven’t checked it out are missing a treat.

Otherwise, loved Jarboe and Helen Money’s self-titled album, but it’s not very strong in my memory now. The Zombi Anthology by Zombi still sounds great but I rarely listen to it. Ratatat’s Magnifique still gets an outing every now and then, but SUN by Secrets of the Moon and Syner by Grift, both of which I really loved and still think are great, seem kind of hard going to me now.
I went through a phase of really loving Venusian Death Cell (and still do, but don’t listen much) and Honey Girl, “released” that year may be my favourite of his albums. Tribulation’s Children of the Night is fun too, in a very different and probably more accessible way

2016

I wouldn’t necessarily say I was aware of it at the time, but 2016 was a great year for music. My album of the year was Wyatt at the Coyote Palace by Kristin Hersh (which I enthused about here) and it became, as I thought it might, one of those albums I can still listen to at any time, pretty much: it’s great.
Otherwise, Zeal & Ardor’s Devil is Fine still sounds great (and is still my favourite Z&A release). I liked Komada by Alcest but now think it’s pretty dull. I was excited by some EPs by Naia Izumi too, but haven’t really checked out their work since then. I am, outrageously, still the ONLY person I know who likes Extended Play by Debz, and it’s still a unique little record and I love it.
I still think Das Ram by Rachel Mason – my other contender for AOTY that year – is great, but as with a few other things, it slipped off of my listening list at some point and I had to remind myself of it

surprise sleeper – Kaada/Patton’s Bacteria Cult

Kaada/Patton’s Bacteria Cult (Ipecac Recordings) is the Hustler’s Row of 2016, only in the sense that it entered my forever playlist without me expecting it to. I’m not sure a week has gone by since then that I haven’t listened to a song or two from this masterpiece

Honorable mentions

David Bowie – Blackstar 
Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker 
Iggy Pop – Post Pop Depression
Jozef van Wissem – When Shall This Bright Day Begin
Japanese Breakfast – Psychopomp
Schammasch – Triangle 
De La Soul – …and the Anonymous Nobody…
Kate Carr – I Had Myself a Nuclear Spring
Jeff Parker – The New Breed

2017

2017 had fewer standouts for me but my album of the year, the self-titled debut by Finnish alt-rock band Ghost World, which I wrote enthusiastically about here, still sounds fantastic. That said, though I was less enthused by the 2018 follow up, Spin at the time, that album is the one I listen to more now. But the best songs from Ghost World are still energised grunge-pop classics.

Otherwise, I liked Quinta – The Quick Of The Heart and a few of its songs are still played quite regularly.
I gave Invocation And Ritual Dance Of My Demon Twin by Julie’s Haircut a great review at the time but don’t remember it now, whereas I didn’t think Tarrantulla by Islaja would have much staying power, but bits of it still pop into my head and therefore onto my stereo every now and then.

2018

I was hugely surprised in 2018 to find that my album of the year was an electronic one, Swim, by Phantoms vs Fire, a cinematic masterpiece full of woozy retro-futuristic sounds and melancholy atmospheres. Even more unexpectedly, it’s gone on to be one of my favourite albums of all time and something that I regularly listen to. All of the other Phantoms vs Fire stuff is fine, but for me at least, this is the one.

I was much taken with As Árvores Estão Secas e Não Têm Folhas by the Portuguese dark folk band Urze de Lume at the time but though I could still happily listen to it, I haven’t for a while.
By contrast, songs from all of these have unexpectedly been in regular rotation over the past few years: Ghost World – Spin 
Just Like This – Faceless 
Orion’s Belte – Mint
Oh, and Burn My Letters by William Carlos Whitten has been revisited far more than I expected and I expect his “Poor Thing” will remain in rotation for the foreseeable future

2019

In 2019, I loved another Collectress album, Different Geographies but it didn’t replace or match Mondegreen in my affections. I can’t seem to find my album of the year strangely, but it might well have been Youth in Ribbons by Revenant Marquis, still my favourite of that prolific artist’s releases.
I also loved but rarely if ever listen to Cryfemal’s Eterna oscuridad, Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou’s May Our Chambers… and Ulver’s Flowers of Evil, but the sleeper of the year was Henrik Palm’s Poverty Metal which I liked fine, but didn’t expect to still be listening to as regularly as I am.

surprise sleeper – Henrik Palm’s Poverty Metal

On the whole it seems to have been a year of songs rather than albums for me – I like the title track of Viviankrist’s Morgenrøde probably as much as anything from that year and bits of Cellista’s Transfigurations still sound great. But lots of the most-praised stuff of the year, albums by Alcest, Cult of Luna and so forth just don’t register with me now: still, can’t like everything.

 

bounders in oiks’ clothing – the reign of the ordinary bloke

 

“His manner was so friendly that I forgot to put on my cockney accent, and he looked closely at me, and said how painful it must be for a man of my stamp, etc. Then he said, ‘I say, you won’t be offended, will you? Do you mind taking this?’ ‘This’ was a shilling, with which we bought some tobacco and had our first smoke that day. This was the only time in the whole journey when we managed to tap money.”

George Orwell, ‘Hop-Picking’, October 1931. Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell Volume 1 An Age Like This 1920-1940. Penguin, 1968, p. 83

Clearly, the old school tie works, even when it isn’t worn. Incidents like this pop up several times in George Orwell’s writings of the 30s, in articles like “The Spike” and in Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) etc., and they always make him uncomfortable. The reminder of the deference that he was, in his original identity as old Etonian Eric Blair, accustomed to and had been trained for in his daily life was both welcome and unwelcome. Unwelcome, because firstly, it was embarrassing to be ‘unmasked’ in front of people with whom he had become friends precisely because at the level of society at which they existed – and in these writings it is the poorest of the working class or the unemployed and destitute – there were no class distinctions anymore; as he says in Down and Out in Paris and London, regarding a typical London lodging house:

All races, even black and white, mixed in it on terms of equality. There were Indians there, and when I spoke to one of them in bad Urdu he addressed me as ‘tum’ – a thing to make one shudder, if t had been India. We had got below the range of colour prejudice.

George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London, Gollancz 1933, p. 150

Though Orwell was sometimes taken aback by the levelling effect that poverty had, he welcomes it too – his occasional unmasking as a “gentleman” was an unpleasant reminder of his abandoned life as a police officer and tool of colonial oppression in Burma. But it was also useful in a way – not just because money and gentle treatment was welcome after weeks or months of hardship, but because it was a stark and simple illustration of exactly the kind of injustice, inequality and disparity he sought to draw attention to with his writing. Orwell is happy to write openly about his deception, partly because it was essentially harmless and necessary, in order to truly experience the kind of life he wanted to write about. But perhaps he was also comfortable doing so because, much as he would have liked to have ‘proletarian’ readers, – and probably did have a few – he was mainly writing for an audience of his peers; the political class who could, if they really wanted to, improve the lives of the vast, faceless mass of unemployed and homeless that they were no doubt aware of, but preferred to think about, if at all, as feckless layabouts who probably deserved their lowly status.

There were of course many working-class readers in the 1930s, possibly even more than there are now, given the enormous output of publishers of what Orwell calls “cheap novels” in that era, not to mention the libraries, newspapers and periodicals designed to cater for every possible niche hobby, that he lists in his 1940 essay ‘Boys’ Weeklies‘. In fact, he notes in Down and Out in Paris and London, that even the unemployed, homeless underclass of itinerant tramps were voracious readers of Buffalo Bill novels and the like, whenever they could get hold of them. Of course, even the most ‘proletarian’ newspapers and publishing houses were owned in the 1930s by people with backgrounds similar to Orwell’s – and by and large they still are. Likewise, at that point it would probably have seemed natural that it was this same class who were to be found running the more recently established broadcasters, notably the BBC. Natural, because before WW2, the role of the upper class was still very much seen as ‘the management’ of the British Empire with the middle class as administrators, but both far outnumbered by the working class who did the work (well, management and administration are work too, but you know what I mean).

What might – or on reflection, might not – have surprised Orwell is that 70+ years after his death, when class differences have been (or appear to have been) diminished, the leaders, for a while, of the relatively extreme left and right-wings of British politics and who appealed openly to the working classes should have been ex-public schoolboys called Nigel and Jeremy. It might surprise him too, to find that members of the openly-elitist public-school educated minority to which he belonged would still be going around pretending to be ‘ordinary blokes,’* almost like he did, in newspapers and especially on television. There are differences in the 21st century; the working class, although now interchangeable to a far greater extent with the middle class, are by virtue of numbers, the main demographic catered to by TV and so whereas Orwell was trying to blend with his social inferiors to prove a point to his peers, undercover toffs today are mostly trying to blend with them in order to appeal directly to, and ultimately financially benefit from, those working class people.

* even as a working class person I inwardly cringe writing “ordinary bloke,” but I think it’s the correct phrase in this instance for what these people think they represent. But bloody hell, “ordinary bloke” – from here on in I’ll just write “OB”

Some observations; the incognito upper class type seems mostly to be a male thing. The female counterparts of these kinds of commentators and presenters are there – Kirstie Allsop or Mary Berry spring to mind, but unlike the men they seem content to be unselfconsciously posh, which is fair enough.

There are various different versions of the type. Some are benign and essentially innocent; people who, one assumes, would have been dropouts whether or not opportunities in TV beckoned and whose scruffy clothes and sloppy speech were probably originally adopted to annoy their parents or just as a way of opting out of the expectations that come along with class privilege (but you get to keep the privilege anyway, so… )

Since at least the 1960s, the pop and rock music business has always been full of these kind of people – and since the 60s too, their opposite has existed; the vastly wealthy who weren’t born into an upper class background. It’s possible that these people, rock stars and entrepreneurs act in some ways as role models to the posh OBs

.

on the left, the standard uniform of the privately-educated “ordinary bloke” On the right, the more raffish, bohemian version of the same. Big posh expensive scarf optional but works with either.

The kind of TV shows made by the benign-dropout demographic tend to reflect a somewhat genteel outsider status* and are often geared towards niche hobbies and interests, so that the whole thing has the aura of the upper class dilletante of the 20s, dabbling in publishing modernist poetry or abstract art. This is a public role in a way, but although it allows the presenter to share his views on the world and life in general, it feels essentially more like a sharing of enthusiasms than anything overtly or covertly patronising or manipulative.

*I do realise that every word of this is probably wildly unfair and doesn’t take into account any of the genuine struggles that come with class expectations etc: oh well.

Where it feels less benign and perhaps more deceptive is when the “OB”-ness of the presenter is an embodiment of what he thinks an actual “ordinary bloke” is like. Perhaps not surprisingly, the evidence suggests that the posh public schoolboy assumes that the OB is what the tabloid press – also, it should be noted, owned by posh ex-public schoolboys – tries to condition them to be. No doubt there are working class people who are old fashioned, conservative, unreconstructedly misogynistic, knee-jerk racist xenophobes, impatient with anything that might seem effete – but it’s also clear that the tabloid press wants them to be that way and does what it can to continue and spread these attitudes. Which is logical enough; the whole point of the class system is to preserve itself and ensure the survival of privilege, blood lines and all that crap. An interesting question – which I don’t know the answer to – is whether it is it self-awareness or self-deception that makes the ersatz OB hide his upper-class accent for TV purposes. Either way it’s probably a wise move, because if there’s one thing that seems risibly effete to the kind of proletarian the tabloid press imagines, it’s the particular kind of upper class speech nurtured in the most expensive and exclusive public schools.

It seems that on the whole, the public is pretty much okay with the fake OB as entertainer and cultural commentator; except for those regular instances when he goes “too far.” But the whole raison d’etre of this kind of public figure is to test the boundaries of what is acceptable, always with the safety net that the whole persona is so obviously contrived that nothing they say can ever be taken seriously, surely? But it’s notable that the self-consciously “outrageous” incidents that pop up from time to time, that seem to simultaneously mark out where those boundaries are and make reactionary attitudes just a little bit more acceptable, always come from the same place. It’s that sweet spot where the tabloid-owner’s classist projection of the “ordinary bloke” – impatient with having to respect people, constantly at war with ‘political-correctness-gone-mad’ – happens to coincide and blend with the underlying upper class snobbery and prejudice that we aren’t supposed to notice, because of that bluff OB exterior. Class prerogatives, racism, classism, the fear of privilege being eroded, the snooty, outraged ‘don’t-you-know-who-I-am?’ loathing of having to deal with or, god forbid, defer to social or racial inferiors; the fear of change. But never mind, it’s all just a joke, innit, and if you take it seriously then you are a puritanical killjoy and who would ever want to be that? No self-respecting ordinary bloke, anyway.

 

gateways to horror: the watch house by robert westall

 

What was the first thing that scared you? The answer to that question is no doubt buried deep in your subconscious and could be almost anything. What was the first thing you sought out because you wanted to be scared? That should be easier to answer but for me at least, it isn’t really.

Well, there was Halloween, and Guy Fawkes Night still used to have a certain frisson in the days when effigies were burned on communal bonfires; an archaic-sounding memory now that November 5th is marked, if at all, by a few fireworks and now that Guy Fawkes has a new life as the face of anonymous protest, thanks to the weak movie adaptation of David Lloyd and Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel V for Vendetta. Whether many of the people using the likeness of “V” know that the real Fawkes’s aim was to restore an absolutist Catholic monarchy, rather than to restore power to the people, or whether most of them even know who Guy Fawkes was, I can’t say.

the terrifying Groovie Ghoulies, which dates from 1971 but was still being aired a decade later

At some point in early childhood I became aware – as we all do – of the classic horror villains; Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, werewolves, the mummy. Those same creatures in fact that, as horror film-loving adults, are famous as ‘the Universal monsters’ – an appropriate/fortuitous name as they are or at least were a kind of lingua franca for kids in the western world. But at the same time, it’s hard to say when exactly one became aware of them. I was bought (and still own), Dracula’s Spinechillers Annual (more about that here) for Christmas when I was eight – but that was hardly my introduction to Dracula. So what was? The earliest memories of these icons that I can pinpoint are parodies, things like The Munsters which, though already a couple of decades old were still regularly aired when I was a child. Then there was Carry On Screaming and of course specifically made-for-children cartoons like the Groovie Ghoulies – also of a certain vintage by then and the more up-to-date The Drac Pack. But although these were all light and funny, even when watching them as a young child, Dracula/Frankenstein/The Mummy etc remained first and foremost horror characters and the enjoyment of those comical versions depended on knowing about the ‘real’ ones. I remember thinking that The Drac Pack wasn’t scary enough. But compared to what?

the somehow very 80s Drac Pack (1980)

In Dracula’s Spinechillers Annual – surely aimed squarely at the hardback annual audience (was this only a UK thing?), the same kids who bought, or were given, the Grange Hill Annual, the Beano or Dandy or Jackie or the annual Blue Peter book. And yet, in the Dracula annual there are beautifully drawn comic strip adaptations – as faithful as they can be for their brief length – of a couple of classic Hammer horror movies. Dracula (1958) and Twins of Evil (1971) were “x-rated” at the time of their release, but by the 80s would probably have been rated 15 – but even so, the comic adaptations come complete with titillating glimpses of nudity and splashes of blood that weren’t typical for kids annuals, to say the least. I hadn’t seen the movies at the time but I remember that even then I was aware of Hammer films, and thought of them as something old and harmless, rather than actually scary. I’d seen bits of them late at night on TV, mainly sequels; I saw Dracula, Prince of Darkness and The Scars of Dracula years before I ever saw the original, superior 1958 Dracula, but nothing from them sticks out much in my mind so, I can’t imagine I was particularly scared by them.

the edition of Shaun Hutson’s Spawn that nearly made me vomit the first time I read it

But at some point, as an older but still pre-teen child, I became a horror fan. While the theory of gateway drugs has been discredited regarding actual drugs, there’s a lot to be said for the idea in different contexts – as a teenage heavy metal fan you (it seemed inevitably) wanted to find music that was heavier, faster, more harsh. As a young reader of what passed for children’s horror fiction (I have the vaguest memories of enjoying Terrance Dicks’s Wereboy! and Cry Vampire! as mentioned here) you equally wanted to find ‘harder stuff’ – if not more scary, then at least more nasty and graphic. Which is not to say that (in either literature or music) you inevitably stick with the hard stuff; my liking for Stephen King long outlasted my liking for Shaun Hutson. In Hutson’s defence, his books were, as a teenager, ‘cool’ in a way that Stephen King’s only sporadically were, and although I don’t remember ever being actually scared by a Shaun Hutson book, he had other virtues; the pace, the energy, the humour – and to this day the opening of his 1983 classic Spawn (mentioned in various places, notably here) – my first encounter with his work – is the only time that reading a horror novel has made me feel physically sick. No wonder he became a favourite of my teenage years.

But I’m getting ahead of myself; if Shaun Hutson marked the zenith of my teenage horror addiction, the initial drug that set me on that road to excess happened a good few years earlier. There were children’s books borrowed from the library which for the most part didn’t really stay with me, although I remember the cover of a book of ghost stories I read then (surely edited by Peter Haining) vividly. As far as being scared goes, the things I remember most from childhood fall into the category of genuine not-fun fear (fear of older kids, skinheads, stuff like that) but also fun real-life fear; walking by a house where a ‘bad man’ lived, being on the streets at Halloween or (to some extent) Guy Fawkes night. The decline of November 5th is often attributed to the tightening of safety rules around fireworks, but I’d say its unique atmosphere actually died out just before that, when the making and burning of effigies (I still knew what “Penny for the Guy” was but I don’t remember kids of my generation doing that) was replaced by the bigger and more exciting (but less intimate and far less peculiar) spectacle of bigger and better communal firework displays.

the first horror movie that really made an impression on me – The Omen (1976)

I was still at Primary school when I saw the first horror film that seemed genuinely creepy to me, The Omen. But it was essentially a dead end for a few years as primary school kids then had no way of accessing real horror movies, at least not without the collusion of adults and a budget beyond what I think was normal in my peer group. So my main route to being what could be termed a horror fan (though I don’t think it would occur to me at that point that it was a specific genre I was drawn towards) was through reading. There’s another story to be told that begins with the hugely popular Fighting Fantasy series of game books, which leads (with some help from Iron Maiden’s mascot Eddie; an important horror icon in his own way) towards HP Lovecraft, but for me, I think the real gateway drug that led me directly to Stephen King and James Herbert was Robert Westall.

the TV tie-in paperback edition of The Machine Gunners

Westall is best remembered now as a children’s author who wrote about WW2, and especially the Blitz. His most important book will probably always be his first, the iconic 1975 novel The Machine Gunners, winner of the Carnegie medal, which was made into an equally iconic TV show. And it deserves its fame – its story of a gang of Tyneside (actually, Garside; like most of his books The Machine Gunners is set in the fictional town of Garmouth, standing in for his own home town of Tynemouth) teenagers who ‘liberate’ a machine gun from a crashed German bomber plane and set up their own fortress to defend themselves and their town against the predicted Nazi invasion, in the face of what they see as the inadequate response of adult society to the situation. It remains both gripping and moving and is expertly told by a writer who had been a child during the war and was able to give a vivid account of the child’s eye view of ‘the home front,’ but who had also been a teacher with a teacher’s insight into children and their behaviour. Like most of the best children’s fiction it never talks down to its audience, and even allows its protagonists to swear when the realism of the story demands it, which was, quaintly, hugely impressive to children of the ‘80s.

The Machine Gunners TV series was broadcast when I was 9 and I first read the book around that time. It’s not a horror novel in any sense, but there are horrific elements within it. Aside from the general dread and tension of wartime, one scene in particular made a big impression on me, not only because of the gore, but also the subtly ominous build-up to the moment of horror, something which Westall would employ even more effectively in his horror-oriented novels. Near the start of the book, its hero Chas McGill has ventured into “The Wood” which

“was bleak and ugly[…] Some said it was haunted, but Chas had never found anything there but a feeling of cold misery, which wasn’t exciting like headless horsemen. Still, it was an oddly discouraging sort of place” (Machine Gunners, 1975, p.13)

This time though, Chas does find something; the remains of the tail end of a German bomber plane which has been shot down, but which still has its machine gun attached. He climbs the wreckage to get the gun, and the description of what happens next stayed with me for years:

“He peered over the edge of the cockpit.
The gunner was sitting there, watching him. One hand, in a soft fur mitt, was stretched up as if to retrieve the gun; the other lay in his overalled lap. … His right eye, pale grey, watched through the goggle-glass tolerantly and a little sadly. He looked a nice man, young.
The glass of the other goggle was gone. Its rim was thick with sticky red, and inside was a seething mass of flies, which rose and buzzed angrily at Chas’s arrival, then sank back into the goggle again.
For a terrible moment, Chas thought the Nazi was alive, that the mitted hand would reach out and grab him. Then, even worse, he knew he was dead.” (Machine Gunners 1975 p15)


After The Machine Gunners, the next Westall book I read was his excellent ‘Brave New 1984’-style dystopia Futuretrack 5 – again, not horror, but often horrifying, especially the scene near the beginning where the narrator Henry Kitson, head boy at an expensive public school, first becomes aware of the very different lives lived beyond the boundaries of his own privileged existence, and which for me entirely overshadowed the whole book when I first read it:

“… Peering through my jungle, I saw a man with no nose.
He’d had a nose; I could see where it had been. Now he just had two holes to breathe through. He’d no eyebrows either. Just purple rings around his eyes, making them look tiny and staring.”
(Futuretrack 5, 1985, p. 18)

This is Kitson’s first sight of an “Unem”, one of the army of unemployed who is killed shortly afterwards by the authorities. When Kitson asks his father what an Unem is (children asking adults awkward and difficult questions is a recurring theme throughout Westall’s books for children), the reply is chilling;

Shut up’, shouted my gentle father. ‘All you need to know is this – if you ever tell anybody what happened, you won’t have a home or a father or a mother.’ (Futuretrack 5, 1985, p.19-20)

After Futuretrack 5 I read as many Robert Westall books as I could get my hands on, and four in particular, all of which fit more or less within the horror genre, have stayed with me and at times unnerved me probably as much any book I’ve ever read has. In fact, they remain creepy now, if read in the right frame of mind, and are for me the most enjoyable of Westall’s many good books. Those four are The Wind Eye (1976), The Watch House (1977, now scandalously out of print), The Devil on the Road (1978; ditto) and The Scarecrows (1981), which, like The Machine Gunners, won the Carnegie medal. The Wind Eye is probably the least good of the four, but it has some powerful scenes. The action, which involves the bleak Northumbrian coastline, time travel, satanic goats and St Cuthbert, takes place when a troubled family (the central characters are three children from two broken marriages, whose incompatible parents have recently married) go to stay in the house of a distant and eccentric relative who has disappeared and been declared dead. But one of the book’s most effective moments comes right at the beginning, before the family even reaches the predictably ramshackle and spooky house:

“Oh, I’m shocking our little Christian here. So unlike her beloved Father. Don’t be such a prig, Beth. It doesn’t mean a thing.” And she placed her blue shoe on the black marble slab.
Nothing moved; nothing fell. But in that instant Beth knew that someone had become aware of them.” (The Wind Eye, 1976, p.12)

This anticipates some of Westall’s most creepy moments, especially a key scene in The Scarecrows, but although The Wind Eye builds to an appropriately stormy and tempestuous climax, The Watch House is far more effectively chilling throughout, probably because, like Westall’s later horror-oriented novels, the action revolves around a single, complex and isolated character rather than a group.

the sadly weak 1988 TV adaptation of The Watch House is still worth a look for lovers of eerie kids TV

The Watch House, which, like The Machine Gunners, was the subject of a TV series – though a sadly inferior and often laughable one – is the most traditional of Westall’s horror novels. The book is a kind of haunted house story, where a troubled teenage girl, away from home while her parents go through a difficult separation, becomes the focus of ghostly activity. The haunting initially centres around the Watch House, the somewhat dilapidated home of the Garmouth Volunteer Life Brigade, a kind of down-at-heel, local RNLI founded when the town was still a busy fishing port.

The atmosphere, landscape and ingredients of the story are established with skillful economy within the first few pages as the heroine Anne, driven by her spoiled and unsympathetic mother, arrives in Garmouth, where she is to be dumped on her mother’s old nanny for the holidays while the separation is hammered out at home. Garmouth, already depicted in The Machine Gunners as a town whose best years perhaps lay behind it, even in the 40s, is seen in more detail here. It’s a typical fishing town, still busy but slightly dowdy in the recession years of 1970s Britain. Decay is everywhere; Anne is introduced early on to the Black Middens, great rocks in the estuary of the Gar, historically the source of the shipwrecks which are at the book’s heart, but now tamed by great concrete piers. A sea wall, begun but discontinued when funding ran out, snakes along the foot of the cliffs on which the Watch House stands. The cliffs are crumbling, as are the ruins of a medieval priory with its slightly dilapidated coastal graveyard; “The sea must eat away the cliff, thought Anne. Some wild nights, bones long buried in earth must receive final burial in sea.” (The Watch House, 1977, p.10)

And then of course there’s the Watch House itself, established almost immediately as a sinister, but fascinating and alluring presence:

“The road ended at the Watch House, which loomed over them as they got out of the car. Built of long white planks, sagging with the years, it had a maritime look. Like a mastless, roofed-in schooner becalmed in a sea of dead grass. Through its windows showed a dark clutter of things that couldn’t be recognised. This clutter and a lack of curtains made the windows look like eyes in a white planked face.” … “The Watch House was well-named. It did seem to watch you. But it was only the effect of dark windows in white walls.” (The Watch House, 1977, p.10-11)

For the first two parts of the novel, the Watch House is at the centre of the supernatural action. A working base for the now-rarely-needed Life Brigade, by this time a group of old, retired men, it also houses their memorabilia. Like the house in The Wind Eye it’s full of fascinating curios. But whereas the house had belonged to one man with a fascination for the past, the Watch House is a repository for generations’ worth of knick-knacks; old photographs, items rescued from shipwrecks, ship’s figureheads, even the bones of the dead found among the Black Middens but never identified. Initially a project for Anne to pass the time, the cleaning, organising and documenting of the Watch House’s contents becomes an obsession and initiates the connection between Anne and a ghostly presence, known affectionately to the members of the Brigade, as ‘the Old Feller.’ Hitherto known and only half believed-in as a somewhat playful spirit who knocks things over and leaves messages in the dust, when Anne arrives his messages become frequent and unambiguously urgent and personal; they are a cry for help.

the Puffin Plus edition of the Watch House that I first read at Primary School

Anne’s status as a sympathetic outsider, as well as the somewhat lonely figure at is reinforced throughout the novel, where the other characters are almost all arranged around her in paired opposites. There are Purdie and Arthur, the elderly couple she is staying with, she old fashioned and disapproving, he mischievous and childlike; the friends Anne makes, Pat and Timmo, Pat cosy and docile, the simian Timmo energetic, cerebral and inquisitive; the two clergymen, Father Fletcher – the local Church of England vicar, cheerful, straightforward and relaxed, and Father da Souza, an American Catholic priest, fiery, dynamic and antagonistic. Even Anne’s parents, peripheral but essential elements in the story, fit in with this pattern, Anne’s mother is fashionable, demanding, cold and impatient while her father – who barely appears – is warm, caring, disorganised and ultimately, perhaps a less sympathetic figure than the author intends. Finally, there are the ghosts themselves; the Old Feller, harmless, terrified and childlike, and the real villain, the ghost of a murderous army officer named Hague, who is bullying, menacing and violent. In each of these cases Anne comes between the other characters, at times more-or-less harmoniously (keeping the peace between Purdie and Arthur and Pat and Timmo) and at others inadvertently stoking tension.
Anne’s own personality, less flamboyant than most of the cast, is mainly brought out in contrast with the others and essentially we see her as an ordinary, lonely teenager. She’s clever and industrious, mild-mannered, but also easily bored. There’s a sharper side to her nature too, mainly expressed when her mother is around, which can be surprising and no doubt  helped to earned the book its Puffin Plus (older children and teens) status. We meet this side of Anne right at the beginning of the novel, when, approaching Garmouth, her mother warns her about Arthur;

“Never made anything of himself, even by their standards. He takes advantage, given half a chance. You’ll need to watch him.”
“What is he – a rapist?”
“I wish you wouldn’t talk like that” (The Watch House p.9)

Anne, already not thrilled at this enforced holiday with near-strangers, is clearly trying to antagonise her mother, but as we discover, her cynicism is well-founded, not because of Arthur himself (who is a harmless, if irritatingly childish old man), but because she is used to the unwanted attentions of her mother’s boyfriend, the loathsome “Uncle Monty”. Late in the novel, when her mother threatens to take her home to London:

“’I don’t want to live with you. I can’t stand having that man around the place the whole time.”
[…] “You mean Uncle Monty? He’s just a friend, you silly goose. He’s just helping me settle in, that’s all.’
‘By spending all night in your bedroom while Daddy’s away? […] He can’t keep his hands off me either. He’s always trying to touch me, when you’re not watching. And give me wet open-mouth kisses.’ It was true. So why was it so terrible to say it?(The Watch House, p.158)

We are reminded throughout the book that Anne is a teenager and not a child; she is at her most teenager-ish when she goes to the local Youth Club disco in the hope of meeting people her own age:

“She’d thought hard what to wear at the Youth Club, and finally decided on plain Wranglers with a Wrangler top. […] Nothing for little cats to get their tongues around; nothing for them to pick holes in. Course, they’d pick holes anyway. But not such painful ones.” [The Watch House, p.65]

Initially, all of the ghostly activity happens within the Watch House itself and takes the form of writing in the dust on the display cases and flickering lights, but when, a few years after reading The Watch House, I first read Stephen King’s IT, the scenes where that novel’s young protagonists first encounter Pennywise irresistibly reminded me of Anne’s first unambiguous encounter with ghosts after the Garmouth carnival, a beautifully effective and atmospheric piece of writing:

“As she got further along the pier, and the sky darkened, the family groups thinned out. She passed through the last, and was alone. Except for one small person in Victorian top-hat and frock-coat, hurrying ahead of her towards the lighthouse. Head down and hands behind his back. Alone among the crowds he looked anxious. He kept peering over his shoulder at her, his face a white blur in the dusk.
[…]
Didn’t she know him?
Of course not. It was just that he looked like that picture of Isembard Kingdom Brunel, who built the Great Western. Except Brunel had looked so much cockier with that big cigar. Not so scared…
And then she knew, quite certainly, that she was looking at a ghost. Because the light on the South Pier came on, and shone right through his face.
[…]
‘It’s me, Anne,’ she took a step forward.
The ghost writhed away.
‘Whatever’s the matter?’ Her voice rose to a scared shriek.
This had happened before to her. Where? Where? In the orchard with Cousin Jane. She had walked towards Cousin Jane, and Jane had shrieked with terror. Because Anne, all unknowing, had a spider in her hair, and Jane was terrified of spiders.
[…]
Anne whirled round. Something faded round the curve of the lighthouse. Something red. There was a strong gust of seaweed; the smell of the bottom of a river.
[…]
She tried doubling back. Nothing. The Old Feller was gone. She was alone with something red that stank of the river and had terrified a ghost.” (The Watch House p.116-7)

During the first two acts of the novel, Westall expertly raises the tension and confounds expectations, the simple haunting becoming something more complex and less predictable as Anne’s not-always-harmonious relationship with her newfound friends complicates things further. Then, as we enter the novel’s final phase, The Watch House has a feature that I’ve always loved in horror novels and one which I associate with (again) IT in particular – the period of research, usually during a lull in horrific activity after the threat has been established. In The Watch House, Anne initially assumes that the ghost – The Old Feller – is trying to engage her help to save the Watch House – which he, as founder of the Garmouth Volunteer Life Brigade had built – from financial and physical ruin and by extension save the Life Brigade itself. But once Anne has helped to secure the future of the Watch House as a museum and the hauntings don’t stop, it becomes clear that more than one spirit is involved.

After a session of hypnosis with her new friends Pat and Timmo proves both disturbing and revealing it becomes clear that understanding the problem requires more detailed local knowledge than Anne has. She talks to the oldest member of the life Brigade, the 95-year-old Bosun, who gives her an eye witness account of events she has previously seen under hypnosis, through the Old Feller’s eyes. She again enlists the help of Timmo. Introduced in the guise of ‘Doctor Death’, an eccentric DJ running the youth club disco, Timmo is an older teenager, a medical student with a huge variety of interests and expertise, but no real attention span. Timmo is knowledgable and freakishly intelligent, but his interest in the paranormal is as playful and skeptical rather as it is genuine and after the dramatic first hypnosis session, Anne only reluctantly agrees to do it again. Before that happens, Anne insists on some more concrete research, but as is common during these kinds of interludes in horror fiction, she suffers from a sense of dislocation that makes rational thought difficult:

“Next morning, Timmo had to bully her all the way up the hill to Front Street. If he hadn’t called for her, she would never have got out of bed. Her legs felt like lead; she had hardly slept.
Front Street, full of shoppers and red double-decker buses, was insubstantial, like a dream. It was the real world that was ghostly now.” (The Watch House, p.131)

The novel’s final act brings the story to a feverish pitch as the supernatural events become more deadly and Anne’s mother arrives in Garmouth, threatening to take her back to London. The climax, involving the two priests in an extended exorcism – surely influenced by the final scenes in the movie version of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist – is powerful but, like the ending of this article, a little bathetic. Although narratively satisfying, it’s loud and apocalyptic where the novel’s most effectively eerie moments are quiet and understated. The scenes that lingered in my mind – and which remain the most vivid to me decades later – are those when Anne, alone in the Watch House, is menaced by Hague, or when she is stalked by a mangy, grave-digging dog in the old Priory churchyard. As horror fiction, these are among the finest scenes that Westall ever wrote. Anne too, is a surprisingly vivid and sympathetic character; Westall’s female characters are often on the verge of caricature and his usual (youthful, male) protagonists tend to have a manly impatience with the women in his books. I would hesitate to call Westall’s books misogynistic, but there is sometimes a strain of male chauvinism to them which seems to belong to the author as much as it does to the characters. It’s also an oddity perhaps worth mentioning that of all the books I read as a child – and there were quite lot of them – Westall’s are the only ones I recall which almost invariably have a flippant reference to rape in them, which definitely feels bizarre in the 21st century. The Watch House itself is very much a product of the 1970s – with much that that entails; chauvinism, mild homophobia, flared trousers – in a way that The Machine Gunners wasn’t, which possibly accounts for its currently out-of-print status. But it’s a shame, with some kind of preface/disclaimer about its dated attitudes and language, it could easily go on to scare new generations of children, and get them hooked on the mysterious delights of the horror genre.