+++*

Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts tagged with ‘books’

Changing tunes

Thoughts from the history of music

I mentioned the other day about having a backlog of ideas to write about without forgetting what they are. Some of them have been bubbling around for a few years now, when I’ve read a book or watched something on the telly. For example, a few years ago I was given a copy of the book Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story Of Modern Pop by Bob Stanley. For the past thirty years or so, Stanley has been one third of the band Saint Etienne, who I’ve loved almost as long, and who right from their start in the late 80s have made pop music that cuts across categories, combining fantastically catchy pop hooks with lyrics that are pitched at just the right level between meaningful and slightly inane; but at the same time squeezing in London hip hop, club beats and art school sound collages. Their first album combines pop bangers like “Nothing Can Stop Us” with voice clips of Richard Whiteley and Willie Rushton; the second has excerpts from the 1960s British films Peeping Tom and Billy Liar, and a man ordering chicken soup.* Their songs “Like A Motorway” and “Hate Your Drug” are arguably the best attempt anyone has ever made to revive the 1960s “death disc” genre,** but at the same time they care as deeply about London psychogeography as Geoffrey Fletcher, Iain Sinclair or Patrick Keiller. In short, they cover such a broad area in their music, that it is not surprising Stanley wrote a broad, broad book.

Yeah Yeah Yeah is a history of British and American pop music from roughly 1945 to 2005 or so; the start and finish dates are a little vague, but it was intended to be the history of British and American pop music over the years that the 7” vinyl single was the dominant distribution format. Naturally, though, it is a history of pop music that doesn’t at all mention Saint Etienne; they are gracefully elided from the chapters they would naturally fit into. I wasn’t really surprised; it would seem a bit gauche to pretend to write about yourself in the same detached and journalistic style as the rest of the book. It left me thinking, though, how would Bob Stanley have written about his own band if he hadn’t been in his own band himself? It’s another of those impossible counterfactuals, one even more unlikely that most, but nevertheless I find it an interesting thought.

I personally became interested in pop music at the end of the 80s and the start of the 90s, something of a strange period that’s often considered a somewhat empty one, a period in which music was doing little more than treading water waiting for the 90s to start. Music from before that period is something I largely know about purely by the regular processes of cultural assimilation (aside from that covered in the folk-focused Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music by Rob Young). The Parents had a very curious, eclectic and limited record collection, which I naturally went through as a teenager, but it gave me a very one-sided view of things. The Mother seems to have been a sucker for the slightly-novelty single when she was younger: her 7”s included “Deck of Cards” by Wink Martindale, the original Doctor Who theme, and “Dominique” by The Singing Nun. She’s also rather liked rock or pop versions of older orchestral music; in the 60s she was buying “Grieg One” by The Second City Sound***, and at the start of the 80s she often listened to the band Sky, with their electronic versions of classical standards.**** Naturally, my knowledge of popular music from before “my own time” ended up being very strange, patchy, but with a deep knowledge of some curious corners. Yeah Yeah Yeah therefore was a fascinating synthesis, a map and a guide to a vast and complex landscape where previously I’d only seen the summits of the mountains peeking through the clouds.

The last portion of the book, though, I found less satisfying. Not just because Saint Etienne weren’t in it, but because in general my own musical tastes have tended towards the slightly niche and obscure, and those particular niches just don’t get swept. In particular I used to be a big fan of Belle and Sebastian. More recently I have gone back and explored some of their own influences, such as Felt, or some of the bands which recorded on the Sarah Records label. These are niches that tend to be seen as not just obscure but wilfully obscurantist, even though that is a very long way from the truth.***** I wasn’t surprised that my own particular hobby-horses were not deeply investigated, but it felt a shame that the 90s in general seemed to be quickly skimmed over. Possibly this was because Stanley felt unable to handle the days of the CD single; I wondered more, though, if it was a general reluctance to deal with the area he felt personally involved in.

The rise of streaming services is often given as something which has fundamentally changed the popular music landscape; and it is indisputable that the music scene today has changed completely from what it was 20 years ago. Personally, though, I feel the change wasn’t driven so much by streaming, but by communication; by MySpace letting every single band in the known universe put up their shopfront and become known across the world. It immediately broadened the scope of every music fan: the trickle of information about new bands that came from the weekly music press suddenly became an unstoppable flood. I, for one, felt that in 1995 I could at least be aware of all the bands in the genres I cared about, but by 2005 that was becoming completely impossible. I can also see how, if you were to write a book about pop music, continuing it past 2005 would seem impossible too.

When I reached the end of the book and read the acknowledgements, I wasn’t surprised. Yeah Yeah Yeah was put together with the help and influence of a number of key members of the ILX forums. Personally, I haven’t used ILX for more years than I really want to think about; but when I saw many named I recognised from ILX in the back of the book, I suddenly realised why some of the book’s arguments and standpoints felt so familiar to me. Of course, given I was a fan of Stanley’s music all along, given I have always been a fan of syncretic, holistic thought and of “reconciling the seemingly disparate”, I would have agreed with much of it in any case. As books go, this one will be staying on the bookshelf.

* One piece of trivia I only discovered when fact-checking this post: the woman on the sleeve of their first album, Foxbase Alpha, is apparently also the woman who says “Can I take your order?” on “Chicken Soup”.

** Yes, it’s a real genre. You probably know the most famous “death disc” track, “Leader Of The Pack” by The Shangri-Las. Incidentally Saint Etienne’s discography is awfully complex and only partially available on streaming services; “Hate Your Drug” was a B-side to the single “Hug My Soul” and an album track on some versions, but not all, of Tiger Bay—it wasn’t on the original UK release. For reasons I have never understood, the rear sleeve of “Hug My Soul” features a black and white photo of a kitchen with random items labelled in Icelandic.

*** If you’ve never heard of The Second City Sound, it’s OK: I suspect The Mother only knew of them because she lived in said second city and they were a local band.

**** Later on still, when she no longer came across new music herself, I managed to get her into William Orbit and The Penguin Cafe Orchestra: I figured they were exactly the sort of thing that would follow on from her previous musical habits.

***** Incidentally over the years I’ve seen many people say they thought Belle and Sebastian would have been a perfect Sarah Records band, if Sarah had still been around when the band formed. I don’t think is true at all; moreover, I feel anyone who says that can only have a wild misunderstanding of Sarah’s aims and purpose. That, though, is a topic too large to fit into this footnote.

Cultural Appropriation

On stories set firmly in a particular place

There are quite a few ideas for blog posts lining up on my pinboard at the moment, and most of them are the sort that require work to write: long, in-depth pieces that need some sort of study or concentration. With the state of things right now, both in the world outside, here at home, and in the office, the space for that level of study and concentration has been a bit hard to come by. However, there’s one thing that has been in my head, on and off, for years, and it’s been sitting in my head for so long that it’s about time I tried to put it into words. It’s about a book which (unlike these) I have read, a much-loved book, one I love myself, in fact, at least at some level. It’s a classic of 1960s YA fiction, particularly in Britain. The Owl Service, by Alan Garner.

If you haven’t read it: it’s a retelling of one of the most famous stories of Welsh mythology, the story of Blodeuwedd, an episode in Math fab Mathonwy, the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. I realise, typing that out, that if you’re not already a fan of Welsh mythology all those words in the previous sentence might be so much noise to you. The Mabinogi is a collection of four linked stories, written down in the Middle Ages but presumably somewhat older, which survived in two known manuscript copies;* in the 19th century they were translated into English by the aristocratic philologist Charlotte Guest. Math son of Mathonwy starts with a war between Gwynedd and Dyfed started by a magical pig-theft as a grand distraction from a rather more sordid plan, and traces the threads that follow on from that plan and the destruction and havoc that follows as a result. If it can be said to have a single theme, it’s probably that magic always makes things worse. Blodeuwedd is a woman conjured from flowers to provide a wife for the cursed hero Lleu Llaw Gyffes; she is not particularly a fan of the idea herself, and goes off with another man instead. I won’t tell you the whole story here, but you can probably gather that it isn’t going to end well.

One reason I’m not going to retell the whole story here is that if you haven’t read The Owl Service then you should do; as I’ve said, it’s a modern retelling, bringing the story forward to 1960s Wales and turning it into a triangular relationship between three teenagers: an English girl who has inherited a Welsh country house, her step-brother, and the Welsh son of their housekeeper. The country house is located in an oppressive, narrow valley and the house seems haunted by sounds: motorbikes powering along the road up-valley, and invisible vermin scratching in the roof. As the book progresses there are dark family secrets, mysterious paintings, ghostly reflections, and of course the crockery set of the title. As stories go it is short but dense: there is a lot of information packed into its pages. Garner is very good at offhand description whose significance is not signalled, letting you make the connections yourself later. In the telly adaptation, made by Granada shortly after publication, quite a bit of further exposition had to be added, notably a “story so far” narration at the start of each episode which sometimes describes explicitly events which weren’t really explained or shown at the point they happened.

I must have first read The Owl Service when I was in my early teens, and I know that when I first read it I was already aware that it was an Important Book. I knew this because most children’s novels I recall reading included a few pages of blurb for other novels at the back of the book, and I’d read the blurb for The Owl Service several times in this way before eventually getting a copy of it.** Certainly, much of it went over my head, but I was taken with its description of 1960s Wales; of the valley, lush and green, that almost disappears when you hike uphill to look down from the surrounding mountains; and the combination of kitchen-sink realism and deep mythology, of the idea that all myths did happen, somewhere, in the real world, and that their ghosts still haunt those places. That, though—I came to realise many years later—is where the problem is.

Nowadays I have two translations of the Mabinogi on my bookshelf, although I carefully keep them apart so that we avoid a critical mass of mythology in one place (or more likely, questions on why exactly I need two different translations). If you pick either of them up, and turn to Math fab Mathonwy, you’ll see the story tells you exactly where everything happened. I said earlier there was a war between Gwynedd and Dyfed: it ended when King Pryderi of Dyfed was killed and buried near Maentwrog, just off the A496. The other man that Blodeuwedd went off with was from around Bala; and the key events in the Blodeuwedd story all occurred close to the Afon Cynfal, one of the rivers that flows down into the Vale of Ffestiniog. I know the area well.

What makes me uncomfortable about The Owl Service is that it’s not set there. It’s not set in some generic imaginary fictional Welsh valley that only exists in Garner’s (and his reader’s) imaginations, either. It’s inspired by a specific place that Garner had visited, Llanymawddwy on the upper Dyfi. If you read the book alongside the Ordnance Survey map of the area, you can track a lot of the walks that the characters take in the book. Garner describes, for example, the walk up to the Ravenstone on the county boundary; and there it is on the map, Carreg y Frân. This is a real place, a real village. But in Garner’s retelling, this is the place the story of Blodeuwedd originally happened, and keeps happening, reoccurring in every generation; when the myth itself is anchored in another real place, an entirely different stretch of the countryside.

The hills above Llanymawddwy

Is this cultural appropriation? I’m really not sure; in any case, that’s hardly a well-defined term. Garner certainly tried to put a lot of effort into trying to make his story both realistic and respectful. He learned Welsh to write The Owl Service, but not for vocabulary or to read the myth in the original; rather, he learned it so that he could make the English speech of his Welsh-speaking characters follow Welsh syntax, because he felt that this would be a more respectful way to make them sound Welsh than the superficial technique of dropping random Welsh vocabulary into their statements. In general this works really well, with just one spot where he shows off his erudition to the reader in a slightly clunky way. The feeling I am left with, though, is that he did just come along to Wales and immediately feel as if he had found some deep, spiritual, mythological meaning to the landscape that wasn’t actually there, a meaning that was his own romanticised interpretation of that landscape as filtered through one of the most famous of all the Welsh myths. In a sense this is no different to if he’d travelled half way around the world and felt he had discovered something deep and exciting and mystical there; the only difference is that he’d only travelled a hundred miles or so over the border from Cheshire. The village and the valley in The Owl Service are haunted by the sound of motorbikes, because the road through Llanymawddwy leads to Bwlch y Groes, a steep, high pass that has for many years been well-known in the biking world. I have no doubt the reason motorbikes are important in the plot of The Owl Service is that Garner, visiting Llanymawddwy and exploring the valley, will have frequently seen and heard bikers driving through the village and up the valley towards the pass; will have sat up at Carreg y Frân and heard them roaring in the distance.

Am I the right person to point this out? I’m not Welsh either, after all, and although I’ve spent a lot of time there for one reason and another, I’ve never lived there. I don’t speak the language beyond a few simple phrases like “mae hi’n bwrw glaw” or “dw i wedi yfed cwrw gormod”, although I probably speak no less than most people who live in Wales do. As an English person living in England, are my own attempts to learn Welsh and read Welsh mythology just as appropriative as Garner? Some would probably say so. As someone who spends a fair amount of time in Wales—albeit not as much as I did a few years ago when I commuted over the border every day—it feels like the right thing to do.

The Owl Service is still a fantastic book, despite its flaws, and despite the niggling impression I have that it represents one Englishman’s superficial interpretation of a myth more than it represents the myth itself. In some ways I suspect my biggest disappointment is, as always, that the Good is the enemy of the Perfect. The Owl Service is so embedded in the imagination as the reimagining of the Blodeuwedd story, it seems difficult to believe that any other, potentially better, potentially more Welsh reimagining of it would ever take its place in the canon. Am I just being too much of a perfectionist critic? Maybe so. And the story of Blodeuwedd still exists, and is never going to disappear.

* The bound manuscripts are known as the Red Book of Hergest and the White Book of Rhydderch. This naming pattern clearly chimed with JRR Tolkien, as in his fantasy mythology, The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings were the translations of a set of manuscripts known as the Red Book of Westmarch.

** Incidentally there are still a few classic children’s and YA novels that I only know in this way, from the blurbs in the back of other novels. The Silver Sword is one that springs to mind; or Smith by Leon Garfield.

The Writer's Voice

In which FP reads, and learns more about writing as a result

Writing this post from the other week, with its long rant about the poor quality of the worldbuilding in BBC3’s Being Human, has made me think more in general about the quality of writing, and the quality of my own writing. After all, am I in a position to excoriate other people’s ability to write and worldbuild, when I don’t exactly have much to demonstrate on my own behalf there?

It set my brain off on a tangent, though. Not so much about worldbuilding, but about the authorial voice. Because that’s something I used to worry about, years back: I would never be any good at writing because I didn’t have my own voice. If you read any of my prose, there would be nothing at all distinctive about it. Whether that was true back then, back when I used to worry about such things, I don’t know, and I have no real desire to go back and read anything that old. It probably isn’t true any more, though. Certainly, one of the things K likes about my blog posts is that, she says, in my writing I sound just as I do when I speak.

I’ve been a reader since I was small: I’ve been able to read since before memory, since before virtually all of my memories, so I have no conception of what it feels like to see words and not understand them. Ever since I started reading for myself, though, I’ve been a silent reader, a very quick reader, and I also tend to be a very poor reader. Because I’m a quick reader I skim too much. I miss things. I miss things out, have to go back, don’t notice Important Plot Points and don’t take in any of the craft involved in the work. However, I think I’ve found a solution to this. I’ve started reading things aloud, and it has turned around the way I look at writing.

What started all this was: I’d just started reading a book I’ve had sitting around unread for a couple of years almost, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.* Only on the second or third chapter, we had to take a plane journey, and K didn’t have anything interesting herself to read. “Read to me?” she asked. So, since, I’ve been reading a passage of Wolf Hall to her in bed every evening. It’s been a couple of months now; reading aloud is much slower than reading silently, and we’re not awake enough for a chapter** every single night. In doing it, I’ve learned a lot about syntax, prosody, and prosody’s representation. Hilary Mantel has been one of my favourite novelists for many years now,*** and Wolf Hall, award-winning and all, is very readable, but it’s not always the easiest novel to read aloud. Its long sentences are just slightly too long for comfort in the voice: lists of things, and there are many lists of things, always have one term too many to easily read aloud. Her authorial voice is very readable, very concise and very accessible, but her sentences are sometimes a little too long to know automatically where the stresses are intended to fall. Which isn’t to deny that it is, absolutely, an excellent novel; it just isn’t perfect for me to read aloud, at least not without a rehearsal.

Wolf Hall‘s sequel will be coming out before too long, and no doubt will be something I will read to K at some point. In the meantime, we are assembling a list of books to be read: The Third Policeman after last week’s opera;**** some Peter Ackroyd, such as Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem; maybe Lanark, although that will be a mammoth adventure. In the meantime, I am taking a lot from reading aloud. It makes me confident that I do have a voice when I write, a voice I can manipulate if I want to. It makes me confident, too, that I have a readable voice, a voice that might be publishable. Most importantly, it has helped an awful lot to reconnect the craft of writing with the act of reading. The two, obviously, are very closely linked; but I think I’d forgotten just how closely linked they are. I think I’d forgotten to write for the reader.

* I can tell you where I started reading it, too: waiting for a train in Frankfurt an der Oder.

** Strictly speaking, it would be very hard to read a chapter every night, because Wolf Hall has very uneven chapter lengths. Some are getting on for a hundred pages of the book; others are no more than two or three.

*** At root, her earlier historical novel about the lives of Robespierre, Danton and Desmoulins is one of the things to blame for the time I got myself on the telly the other year.

**** Tricky, with all its footnotes.

Adaptation

In which we discuss the Scott Pilgrim movie, one case of a comic-to-film adaptation that keeps all the spirit of the comic it came from.

Back, back in the mists of time — well, in December 2007 — I posted a review of Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together, the fourth, and at that point, the latest, book in the Scott Pilgrim series by Bryan Lee O’Malley.

Since then, of course, the world has moved on. In Spring 2009 the fifth book, Scott Pilgrim vs. The Universe was published, with shiny metallic cover. We quickly bought it,* and I intended to write about it on here, but somehow other things kept coming along and SP5 never got its review.

Forward to this year, and publicity started to appear for Scott Pilgrim, the movie version. The sixth and final book, Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour, was published this summer. “I really must write on the blog about this one,” thought I, “before the film comes out.” But it didn’t happen. So, last weekend, we went to see the film, not sure if we would love it or hate it.

Quick recap for people who have never heard of Scott Pilgrim, never seen it, never read the books: Scott Pilgrim is a 20-something slacker geek with no job, in a rather bad band, who starts dreaming about a mysterious girl. She turns out to be a real girl, a delivery courier called Ramona who knows the secret of using people’s dreams as shortcuts between places in the real world. Scott immediately falls in love, but quickly discovers that her emotional baggage is somewhat more real than most people’s, as she has a whole league of Evil Exes she’s dated in the past, who Scott must defeat in video-game-style fights before he can win her heart. Now, read on…

Adaptations often get a bad press. What works well in one medium, after all, doesn’t always translate; but if an adaptation’s not faithful, it can end up pleasing nobody. Scott Pilgrim vs The World, though, is one of the most faithful adaptations I’ve ever seen, despite the fact it has to cut six books’ worth of action down into one single film. From the moment it started, with the same fonts onscreen as in the book, it was, I think, as close to the comic as any live-action adaptation could get. Lots had to be cut out, of course – the books are set over the course of a year, the film over a few weeks at most – and due to release schedules the last act is radically different to the final book; but, overall, the spirit of the books is captured extremely well. Some subplots were pruned entirely; some of the backstory was moved to an animated short; and some of the characters’ emotional lives are simplified or made less explicit; none of it feels missing from the film, though. Moreover, the film uses a lot of the books’ stylistic quirks. Just like in the books, each new character gets a little black caption explaining who they are and what they’re up to. Just like the books, the film is full of cunning references and semi-hidden jokes. The film does a very good job, like the books, of portraying a realistic world in which, nevertheless, video-game events can happen.

There are a couple of places where you could argue that the film’s better than the books: in plot terms, there are two places where the story is told in a slightly better way.** In general, though, I still prefer the books: a much fuller story, because there’s more space to tell it in. At some point, I should write an essay about the ending of the series, and what I think it says about life; that’s not for today, but it says something that the books can inspire me to consider something like that.

Some reviews of Scott Pilgrim vs The World have said that it’s “too hyperactive”. It is, definitely, a fast-moving film: that’s what you get when you compress that much shelf-space into one movie. Philip French, in the Observer, complained that at 1 hour 52 it’s “overlong” – maybe that was the effect of the various fight scenes, which do come close together. Myself, I found it both witty and touching; but I did worry that a newcomer, someone who’s never read the books, would have no clue what was going on at all.

In general, for both me and K, it’s the case that we can’t watch films too often. Once we’ve seen something, even a film we both love, it has to sit on the shelf for a few months before we can happily watch it again. As we walked out of the cinema after seeing Scott Pilgrim vs The World, almost the first thing we did was: work out when we have some time free to go back and watch it again. If that isn’t a recommendation, I’m not sure what is.

* Coincidentally, the day I bought it was also the day I auditioned to go on Mastermind – I stopped off at Forbidden Planet on the way home.

** Spoilers: the defeat of Todd, the third Evil Ex is directly caused by Scott in the film; in the book, it’s a bit of a deus ex machina. It’s set up earlier, so not a complete bolt from the blue, but Scott doesn’t really have much involvement with it. Secondly, the treatment of Scott’s extra life is handled better in the film, in that he has to “replay” the previous few scenes a second time, but knows how to handle them better; in the book he returns to consciousness straight after the dream/afterlife sequence with Ramona. You can, of course, find examples of video games that work in either way, but I preferred the film version.

Books I Haven't Read (part the tenth, maybe)

In which we criticise a Great Writer, at least by volume

With such a big pile of books each for Christmas, there was bound to be something that I wouldn’t be able to make it through. The ironic thing, though, is that this Book I Haven’t Read is probably, in one sense, the easiest read on the pile. Unseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett.

Back when I was a teenager, I read an awful lot of Pratchett. I must have read every Discworld book at some point by now, and I’ve got copies still of most. The Parents, being unusually observant, picked up on this: and at some stage they started buying me a copy of his latest book every Christmas. As he’s kept on producing books, this kept on happening.

Now, at one time, I did enjoy Pratchett’s books. Back when I was a teenager. He’d published about ten, fifteen or so; so there were plenty to get through without it seeming too daunting. Moreover, he hadn’t run out of ideas, and the Discworld series hadn’t started to reach critical mass. Back then, Pratchett didn’t worry too much about making his world consistant, and presumably his readers didn’t worry about it too much either.

It’s something to do with that sort of fan, though, the sort that tends to be a fan of Pratchett, that they crave consistancy and reliability. They want the world to be as solidly-built as our own, even when the fraying at the edges is fairly obvious; even when its development over time is extremely obvious.* Even if the author doesn’t worry about tying up loose edges and gluing bits of geography together, assiduous and energetic readers will start doing it for him. And they did. A lot of effort started to be put into making the whole thing “make sense” in some way, to the extent that Pratchett ended up writing entire books apparently just to make incoherency a coherent part of his universe.** That should, really, be the point where you realise that a good idea’s been taken too far.***

All of that, though, is by-the-by compared to why I didn’t manage to read this specific book. I gave up on Unseen Academicals because, well, it generally isn’t very good. It’s not a book that gave me any sort of urge to keep reading at all. The characters are rather flat and lifeless, and the Deliberate Air Of Mystery surrounding the Mysterious Characters seems, well, all too deliberate, as if someone had written it all according to the How To Write A Discworld Novel manual. If I was a fan, I might have managed to finish it. Not being, I didn’t.

All novels, as you know, like to have review quotes in their blurb. For writers starting out, it may well be from a better-known writer who has taken a shine to this novel. For better-known writers, it will be an impressive quote from a review in a Top Newspaper. You can tell a writer who’s gone too far, though. They have what Unseen Academicals has: a quote from the writer themselves, about how great their own book is.**** It’s not a good sign, when you think you’re your own biggest fan.

* Note for non-Discworld readers: the Discworld started off as a parody of swords-and-sorcery fantasy. With the sixth book it started to expand to cover parodies of other literature, and by now has covered just about every aspect of Real Life of the past 200 years or so. As a result, it’s not actually a “fantasy” world any more, apart from magic used for comedic effect.

** Well, at least one. I’ve read it, and it does read like it’s largely filler./p>

*** And, yes, I know I complain about consistancy in Doctor Who. But the annoyance there is more the selective consistancy; the have-your-cake-and-eat-it grab-stuff-from-anywhere approach that Russell T Davies tended to take with the programme’s backstory.

**** Douglas Adams, I have to admit, did manage to get away with this once, by not sounding serious about it.

Subtlety

In which something is hard to understand

Both K and I now have big stacks of books we collected over Christmas. As there are some books I had last Christmas that I haven’t read, yet, there’s plenty now to keep us both going for a few months.

As mentioned the other day, one of the books I received this year was Gödel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas R Hofstadter. I asked for it specifically, but in doing so, I was already aware that it may well end up on the “Books I Haven’t Read” review list. Because, after all, its reputation precedes it. It’s a long book, a complex book, and it deals with some complex and subtle ideas.

Luckily, though, it’s also a very readable book. With its detours and its playfulness, it reads almost like a more complex, grown-up version of a Royal Institution Christmas Lecture series. It’s definitely not going onto the Books I Haven’t Read pile, because I’ve almost finished the whole thing. However, I might have to start a new pile specially for it: the Books I Don’t Think I’ve Properly Understood pile. Many of its arguments are rather gentle and subtle, others are brutally subtle, and others I admit to having to skim over. This may well, according to some of its arguments, prove that I am indeed conscious and intelligent. Either that, or I’m slightly tortoise-like in my thinking. I’m not, as yet, sure which.

Filing System

In which we find it is a good thing I no longer work in a library

Looking at our overstuffed bookshelves the other day, I started idly thinking about more interesting ways to file our books. It’s fairly impossible to come up with an entirely useable filing system, because of the way the shelves are stacked three-deep, so I thought it might be more fun to come up with a hard-to-use but more creative system. Filing by number of syllables in title, for example.

Any project like this, it’s important to do the cataloguing. Here are the books I could spot on our shelves* with one-syllable titles:

Tithe
Stiff
Bonk
Bitch
Lust
Prime
Fludd
and Inga Muscio’s Cu

Regular reader E Shrdlu of Clacton writes: But surely, this isn’t going to work? How are you going to find books you need for research? What about subtitles? What about factual books? I mean, surely, for easy access you’re going to need to have all books on the French Revolution in one place, and all the books on the history of the London & North Eastern Railway in another?

Well interrupted, E Shrdlu. I’m not sure it’s practical enough to be going on with. But all those books would definitely look good on a shelf together, I’d think.

* as I said, they’re stacked three rows deep, so statistics suggests we may well have three times as many

The World Turned Upside Down And Back Again

In which a book of history is the start of a thread back to the present

A while ago now, I bought a book, and predicted that it would quickly go on the Books I Haven’t Read list. Well, seven months later or so, I’m pleased to say it’s finished, and moreover, it sparked off a desire to read and know more. The book in question – if you didn’t follow the link – is The World Turned Upside Down, by Christopher Hill.

Hill is popularly known as something of a “Marxist” historian. It’s hard to judge, on the strength of one book, whether or not that’s true. Certainly, it’s not a book of armies and battles; or of great men and events, at least not the men whose names are still widely remembered. It is, instead, a book which examines the effects of those events on ordinary people. The events of the 1640s, whether you call them the “Civil Wars”, the “English Revolution”, or the “Wars of the Three Kingdoms”, gave ordinary people the opportunity to participate in political debate for the first time, and for a brief period, made it possible for radical politics to firstly define itself and secondly enter the mainstream.* Before the reassertion, first by Cromwell, later by Monck and Charles II, of military-monarchical power, various groups of Puritans, Levellers, Diggers, Quakers and Ranters were given the chance to express themselves and posit alternative forms of religious and/or social organisation and growth. It’s hard for an ordinary unlearned like me to distinguish between them all, and understand the fine differences of policy between people such as Gerrard Winstanley, John Warr, George Fox, James Nayler and Abiezer Coppe. And what great names they have! How many people do you know, nowadays, with a name like “Abiezer Coppe”?

The 1640s and 50s are not, as I said, a period I know much about. I know there was a complex series of wars through the British Isles, that Charles II hid in a tree, and that Oliver Cromwell died, but still managed to get himself hanged afterwards – not to mention, his head stuck on a pole, of course. But really, that’s about it. I have a little idea about a few other things: the men of Hull meeting at the White Harte pub and barring the king’s entry, for example; or James Nayler, the leader of the Quakers, comparing himself to Christ by entering Bristol on a donkey; but I know they are all just isolated scenes from a complex series of physical and mental wars. And, to be honest, reading The World Turned Upside Down hasn’t tidied up my knowledge of the period, because, as I said, it’s not that sort of book. It has on the other hand given me an eye into what ordinary people were doing and thinking, and what they felt able to say once the dead hand of government censorship was lifted from the presses.

It made me think of a book I’d like to write, and made me wonder how to start going about writing it. Regular readers might remember that last month we popped down to London for the London Zine Symposium; and were slightly disappointed by a talk on zine libraries and archiving. I particularly remember, during that talk, an audience member asking when zines originated; and the panel all giving wrong and misleading answers. One said they started with punk; another said they started in the 60s. In actual fact, the word “fanzine” comes from the science fiction scene of the 30s and 40s; but the idea of the amateur press goes back a lot longer than that.

That panel included people who thought that zines are intrinsically political; or, rather, that a self-published “zine” which doesn’t embrace radical politics isn’t actually a zine at all. The people who hold that opinion also tended, I noticed, to be the ones who didn’t think zines existed before punk zines appeared. They would, I assume, be completely unaware that the radical self-publishing scene first established itself in the 1640s, when England first gained press freedom. The political pamphlets published then by the people Hill wrote about are, in essence, the direct ancestor of the punk zines of the 1970s or the Riot Grrrl zines of the 1990s.

So, then, this is the book I’d like to write. A history of radical self-publishing, starting in the 1640s, going through the French Revolution, Chartism, and ending up with punk, Riot Grrrl and anticapitalist zines. The only problem is, I don’t know anywhere near enough about any of those topics to actually write it. I can see there the common thread, but I don’t have enough in my head to put flesh on the bones. The World Turned Upside Down, though, has shown me that there’s something there, that if only I had the time to investigate the existing material available discussing 17th-century pamphleteers, I could come up with something interesting.

* Much as the French Revolution, or rahter, the events preceding it, did 150 years later; which is probably why the term “English Revolution” was retrospectively applied in the last century. At least I’ve managed to relegate Robespierre, Mirabeau and co. to a footnote this time.

Insult

In which we must have upset someone

I woke up, to find a bright, sunny morning outside. I threw back the front room curtains, and noticed something outside, on the window sill. Someone had left a book there. Curious. I wonder what it might be. Maybe it’s something good.

I looked closer. And then: I saw the author’s name in bright shiny letters. Jeffrey Archer.

What have I done, I wondered? What have I done to annoy the neighbours so much, that someone would leave a Jeffrey Archer book on the window sill? Or was it some random visitor from Weston-super-Mare, maybe? It’s a mystery to me. And, moreover, what should I do with it?

Chauvinism

In which we are shocked by vintage sexism

If you get involved in some hobbies, some fields of interest, you have to get used to the fact that you’ll end up finding yourself alongside older men with unpalatable views. If you like trains, for example, you will sometimes find yourself alongside elderly trainspotters who haven’t yet worked out that there might be a link between “being single” and “not washing”. You get used to hearing them espousing rather reactionary viewpoints, such as “we should send them all back to their own countries”, and so on.

Nevertheless, occasionally, something comes along which makes you think: I can’t believe they said that. Or, in this case: I can’t believe they printed that. I was reading a book I picked up recently in a charity shop: Victorian and Edwardian Railway Travel From Old Photographs by Jeoffry Spence, a 1980s reprint of a 1970s book, and came across this delightful passage in the introduction. It starts off with saying how Edwardian railway timetables were far too complicated for women to understand, and goes on:

But even today, with so many regular-interval services and absence of complexities, there is something rather irritating to us chauvinistic males about the sight of a woman standing haughtily in the circulating area of a big station, telling us firmly what time the train goes, which platform, where to change, and even the time of arrival at the destination; it makes a bad impression on our younger children.

I’m sorry? It “makes a bad impression” for children to be allowed to see a woman advising a man? To see a woman having responsibility? To see a woman speaking firmly? Or, indeed, all of the above? Even for something written in the late 70s, that’s a bit much to see in print.

A bit of research suggests that Spence was born in 1915, so was probably in his early 60s when he wrote that. He died* in ’92, at 77 or so. Getting a bit elderly when he wrote those words, then, you could argue. But I don’t think that’s an excuse, given that feminism was already alive and well when he was growing up; and that there are plenty of people of his generation who weren’t such terrible bigots. Thirty years later, it comes across as a shockingly sexist piece of writing. The worrying thing is: I’m sure there are still men today, lurking in the backwoods and writing down the numbers of trains, who would probably still agree with him.

* Assuming I’ve found the right man, but the unusual spelling helps